Just because your hens have stopped laying doesn’t have to mean they’re only good for stew. Matthew Wilkinson shares some excellent suggestions for putting hens out to pasture.
This coming June, I will turn 59 years old. I am well aware of some limitations that age has brought upon me. Certain sounds drive me through the roof. Other times, I find myself leaning in and cupping my ear, because I can’t hear a word the person is saying. I wake up a lot at night, and put on weight way too easily. Other than that, I really do feel fantastic!
But what about those old chickens of yours? How are they doing? Probably pretty much the same as I am. If you could have an honest sit-down with any 3-year-old laying hens, you would probably hear their jealousy over those younger, spry chickens. These older ladies would most likely tell you that their egg-laying has been spotty and they are tired of the shenanigans of that wily Mr. Fox. Other than that, they are fantastic!
Problem is that not everyone feels the same. Those of us who are trying to age gracefully are oftentimes labeled as “past our prime” and put “out to pasture.” This does not have to be the case for an old person like me, nor for my little feathered friends.
The Laying Years
Laying hens start producing when they are about 6 months old, and most enjoy a 2- to 3-year period of high productivity. During that time, laying hens are responsive to the total number of daylight hours. In the fall and winter, when those hours fall below 12, the hen’s ability to produce eggs tapers off. Each hen within a flock will start to resume her normal egg-laying routine as daylight hours expand again in the spring. If you, as the caregiver for those hens, want to help, a fluorescent lightbulb or grow light can be placed in the henhouse. With the help of a timer, all the hens can receive enough light to maintain their egg-laying abilities. But even a lightbulb and timer can’t help an older chicken keep her egg-laying game up to a younger chicken’s levels. At some point, an older hen’s ability to lay eggs begins to wane, and soon people are making decisions on her behalf.
I have written previously on processing an older flock and all the uses for chicken parts. But what if you are not so inclined to travel down that road with your feathered friends? After all, the girls produced a lot of eggs for you. How about trading fewer eggs for a different kind of use?
You’ll have to decide how you value what the older gals have to offer. If they are just not pulling their egg-laying weight any longer, it’s time to process this group of hens and get a new, younger bunch. Or is it?
Yes, the purpose of an egg-laying chicken is to lay eggs. But, that is not the only value these birds have. They are quite diversified in the ways they can contribute to a homestead or to an individual.
Older birds continue to make excellent guard chickens. As chickens mature, they gain wisdom. Any person who has ever kept a flock of birds knows this. Young chickens are afraid of you. When you first put them into a yard or house, they go bananas when you open up a gate or door. If you try to provide feed or other care, your efforts are sure to result in fluttering, squawking, and other wild chicken behavior. As the birds age and mellow, so does their behavior. They recognize you as a friend and provider, and they welcome your presence. This type of interaction between you and your birds is valuable. Because of this relationship, it is advised to keep some of the older layers to act as “guard chickens” for the flock.
The aging hens have learned to recognize dangerous situations. An older chicken will see problems long before the younger girls, and will, in turn, warn the others. On many occasions, I have witnessed seemingly unaware chickens doing their chicken thing, when out of nowhere an older lady springs into Hero Chicken mode and ushers all the chickens under a tree canopy. Moments later, the shadow of a hawk appeared, and I was thankful for the wisdom of the older chicken!
Old Maids as Nursemaids
Another great way to use the older girls is to allow them to get “broody,” which simply means they want to sit on a pile of eggs. It is fun to hatch a bunch of chicken eggs, and there’s no better resource than a chicken herself. An old girl is happy to sit on and turn eggs while the younger hens are out causing mischief and acting so young!
Poultry Power Garden Maintenance
Ever watch a group of hens do their thing in a chicken yard? They are busy, scratching and turning up soil like a high-quality rototiller. I suggest you put that poultry power to work. In the spring, go out and build a small chicken cage, without a floor, that fits over your garden beds. Place a couple older hens inside it, and let them do their thing. Within hours, you will need to move the cage along your garden row, and you’ll be thrilled with the amount of soil that was turned up, weeds that were eaten, and insects that were destroyed.
While these chickens are scratching and eating to their hearts’ content, they are also depositing huge amounts of nitrogen-packed chicken poop. When I say “packed,” I mean you will scorch any plant placed within that soil. Give any garden bed with fresh chicken manure at least a couple of months to mellow before daring to plant within its soil. You can also turn your older girls loose on your compost pile to help turn it over and add their nitrogen-rich deposits.
Ever hear of a trap crop? No? Well, it is a great farming/gardening technique where you plant a few rows of a particular plant, such as marigolds, in front of your most desired plants, such as tomatoes. Harmful insects are attracted to the marigolds, and spend all their time gorging on the trap crop, never having the desire to travel farther. The flowers act as a barrier between bugs and your food plants.
This same type of technique can be used with chickens. I found great success in building a “chicken moat.” Instead of having water as my moat, I used chickens. I simply placed a fence around my vegetable garden’s outermost fence, thus creating a double fence. The older chickens were placed within the space between the two fences. I provided these birds with water and little feed. Their hunger was satisfied by whatever food they could find within the space, including any insects trying to make their way into the vegetables. The chickens became the gatekeepers for my vegetables. No wandering insect could get by them. The chickens became the moat!
Seniors for Seniors
Chickens aren’t just an asset in the garden. They can actually contribute to a person’s mental health. I am seeing many companion dogs in airports and restaurants lately. Why can’t a chicken act as a source of companionship? Well, they can. It is very gratifying to care for another living creature. I once boarded a bus in Costa Rica, and there in one of the seats was an older woman with a very well-behaved chicken in her lap. Throughout the entire ride, I watched the women lovingly caress her dear pet. Chickens can easily serve as companions for older people. Check with your local senior center to see what animal programs they offer. You always see older people feeding pigeons in the city. What about a nice flock of chickens to call their own? Adopt a chicken? Birds of a feather flock together…
Another opportunity for chickens to take their talents on the road is to donate them to a living history museum. Years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Colonial Williamsburg as a reenactor. I dressed in period garb and put on a day-long demonstration on how hogs were butchered during that period of America. There are always chickens at these living history museums. Why not consider donating your old layers to one of these farms or museums? How about petting zoos? Kids don’t care if a chicken is laying eggs or not; they just want to hold the birds, feel the feathers, and get a nice selfie with a friendly hen.
Join the AARC!
If chickens could talk, I am confident they would speak about their desire to always feel valued. They don’t want to be seen as past their prime. As all of us age, we have the ability to find new meaning in life. A tweak here and an adjustment there is all that is required to put new value and meaning into someone’s life. Yes, older chickens can simply be put into a soup pot, but there are other choices. Allow your imagination to open. See the chickens for what they are and how they can continue to contribute. Anyone who has ever cared for a chicken that has reached senior citizen status knows the amount of effort and money that was required to reach such a point. I argue that finding new ways for older chickens to stay active is a worthy investment. We have AARP for humans, so why not have AARC (American Association for Retired Chickens) for chickens?
Matthew Wilkinson is known for his humor, knowledge, and easy-to-understand explanations of homesteading techniques and systems. Wilkinson and his family own and operate Hard Cider Homestead in rural East Amwell, New Jersey. You can also see him in action at Mother Earth News Fairs.