Older hens, Kenny Rogers and long term flock management February 27, 2012
I’ve often thought that older hens must be Kenny Rogers’ fans. Well, not exactly. But they know when to hold ‘em; they know when to fold ‘em; they know when to walk away, and know and when to run. They never count their… no, hold on; I was getting a little caught up in my own analogy. I just realized something. This can’t be right.
Am I right?
Sorry, Mr. Rogers.
The truth is that many of my girls are relatively old, by chicken standards. A lot of my hens are six years old or more. But my flock is great, and productive! At our house, we do NOT process or eat our hens just because they get old. I get it, though. I do understand that there are benefits to managing your flock that way. I mean, presuming you eat meat, processing your birds reduces your dependence on factory farms, allows you to have a closer connection with the way food is produced and supports a more sustainable lifestyle. As hens get older, they lay fewer eggs… so many people think that keeping only young hens who are at top production makes sense in a financial respect, too. In addition, the birds you have raised will have had a long and wonderful life in comparison to what they would have had in factory farms. “Meat” birds raised in factory farms are usually slaughtered at only six weeks old!
But what many people fail to consider is that if you *are* wanting to live more sustainably, there are also many, many reasons to keep your old hens in the flock, so we care for our old hens rather than process them. They are our pets… but if sentiment isn’t reason enough for you to keep your older hens, there are plenty of other reasons, too.
First of all, at a backyard scale, the financial considerations of keeping older hens are relatively insignificant. Our flock is small; we’re not losing hundreds of dollars by feeding hens who aren’t at their peak production. So we’re feeding a few older hens who don’t lay at their top rate anymore, so what? I also feed my cats, and those boys have never given me egg one… although they have left a few choice hairballs for me in unexpected places. Chicken feed is cheap. Plus, by keeping chickens, I have more control over what goes into my family’s food; I can enjoy fresh eggs that actually have TASTE, and I can teach my daughter about where food comes from. She can see how respectfully and lovingly animals that provide us with food can be treated. Additionally, there’s also the simple pleasure of seeing the girls go about their day, scratching for grubs, sun bathing, resting in the shade, preening, chasing after moths and grasshoppers. Chickens are far more entertaining than TV. Many an hour has been spent on the porch swing, just watching them go.
Secondly, processing birds has a drastic effect on the dynamic of your flock, because an established flock also has an established pecking order. That order is usually a pretty peaceful arrangement. Each hen knows her place, and each rooster knows his. It doesn’t matter that someone is at the top and someone is at the bottom–so long as they understand where they fit in the order of things, they’re going to be pretty satisfied. Anyone who has ever lost a bird, though, can tell you that removing even ONE bird from a flock can upset the order and cause pecking order issues. After all, which one of the hens below old Bessie in the pecking order will get her old spot on the roost at night? They will squabble for it. Who will get her turn at the feeder? They will bicker over it. In fact, they’ll have at it like a group of selfish middle schoolers, or (worse!) like a rabble of politicians. This happens sometimes even in the case of a temporary loss of a hen from her regular place, for instance, when a hen goes broody and doesn’t claim her normal place at the roost or feeder. And if losing ONE bird is problematic, removing large numbers with a mass processing can cause chaos, at least for a while until a new pecking order has been established. I want a peaceful, happy flock because I want my hobby to be pleasant–who doesn’t? When it’s no longer pleasant because your flock isn’t peaceful, it’s much less of a hobby and much more of a job! (Also, um, someone remind me to write a blog post about being lucky enough to have your hobby as your job!)
But back to the subject at hand, though. Once you’ve created the mass chaos of removing old birds from the flock, why then you have to create the additional mass chaos of introducing new birds to your flock to replace the old ones that are gone. Since introductions are made much easier by having any new babies raised by a broody in your flock , when it comes to having your hens raise baby chicks for you, this is where it’s especially helpful to have older hens.
One reason is simply that older hens are usually more likely to go broody and be available to raise the chicks you purchase or hatch when you need them to be available. Another is that having an experienced broody hen can be absolutely invaluable to maintaining the peace of your flock. Chicks learn from their mother. Mother shows them what is good to eat, what is bad, where to find it and so on. She shows her chicks where to dust bathe and sun bathe, and where to hide if a predator comes along. In studies, mother hens could even teach their babies to stay away from color coded “bad” grains. Really, the influence mother hens have on the new babies is tremendous.
Experienced broodies are worth their weight in gold. They have done it all before; they are not surprised by anything. New broodies can be shocked that their perfect, beautiful eggs–the eggs they’ve been so dedicated to sitting on–have suddenly been replaced by fuzzy invaders! New broodies can sometimes reject their chicks. If you have an experienced broody hen, though, she knows just what to do. She can teach her babies what is good to eat, where to hide when necessary, what is a threat and what isn’t.
Beyond that, if you plan to breed and hatch eggs from your own chickens, keeping older hens is important, too! For instance, if you have a bird who continues to produce eggs in reasonable quantities as she gets older, this may be the very girl whose eggs you want to try to hatch! Hopefully those qualities will be passed to her offspring. After all, how can you make logical decisions and evaluate which bird is healthy, friendly and productive in the long term if you get rid of your chickens as soon as they reach a year old? Or two? Or four? Some chickens continue to lay productively for a very long time. Although the eggs of older hens can sometimes be more difficult to hatch, to me, these are still the birds I want to use to increase my flock. I love that since I keep older hens, my flock has time to develop its own, unique culture. We know that chickens have a language: there are calls that warn of predators from the sky, or danger on the ground. There are calls that flock members make throughout the day to let the other members of the flock know where they are. There are calls made before or after an egg is laid, and so on. Plus, there are many subtle variations on all these calls. Are they instinctive? Yes. But older hens develop more subtle communication mechanisms as their language and flock culture develops. Introducing new birds to a flock that is basically stable in its structure is much easier, because even non-broody older hens will have seen it all before. Older hens are more likely to understand that new chicks aren’t invaders–they’re just chicks. Plus, they know how to effectively communicate with them, because they’ve communicated with chicks in years before. Think Kenny Rogers–they know what to do in sticky situations! (But try not to think about his restaurant too much.)
The bottom line is this: in many cases, keeping older hens in your flock can save you substantially in the long run. It’s a long term strategy. It may cost less over all, because having a stable pecking order requires less work and provides more pleasure. It may cost less because your flock knows where to hide when predators come–and knows how to effectively teach this to everyone–even the youngest, most productive layers, who might otherwise not have figured it out on their own. And it may cost less in the long term, too, because your own flock becomes more sustainable and productive when you are making good breeding choices.
Here’s to the old ladies!