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.

Surely, chickens can’t be too awfully fond of Kenny Rogers.  He had his eponymous chicken restaurant, didn’t he? I had forgotten about that. Well, there goes my theory. Chickens probably hate Kenny Rogers. (Maybe they need to pay more attention to his early work; that was good stuff!) Ahem, the point remains, though, that old hens know what to do in dangerous situations–they improve your whole flock for that reason. With respect to Mr. Rogers, maybe I can say that older chickens know, uh… they know when to hold still; they know when to, scream shrill ; they, uh, know when to… hunker down, and know when to hide. They never count their chickies while they’re sittin’ at the–I mean, IN the next box. There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the hatching’s done.

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!

kate C. March 12th, 2012

I would completely agree with this… except my town limits us to four hens. I don’t have any yet and I’m not sure what we’re going to do when our hens stop laying enough eggs for us, but the whole reason we want to have chickens is to not have to buy eggs from factory farmed chickens and have our kids see where their food comes from… so I’m not sure that we can just keep feeding them for 10-15 years after they mostly stop laying! We’ll have to see how it goes though!

nice writing though! enjoyable and I do agree with your sentiments – just wish we could have a few more chickens in town! 🙂

Brandy April 12th, 2012

I’m lucky enough to not have a limit on my number of chickens, but unfortunately I have to drive to see them as they are about 3 miles away. But I chose to maintain a no kill policy because I love ALL of my babies, as long as they live.

Garilyn Bardash May 21st, 2012

don’t chickens usually live just 3-5 years?

Meghann May 21st, 2012

Average chicken life is around 8-10years. There are always exceptions to every rule – older than ten. I have some hens that are pushing 6 and still laying. I completely agree with this article. Pecking order disruption is a pain!

Nelly Schaffner May 21st, 2012

I wish everyone would stop eating chickens and treat them like cats , dogs, ….I love my hens so much that I have stop eating meat all together, and I have never felt healthier and better.

Jen May 21st, 2012

Most chickens will live to 10-20years provided they are healthy and no predators get them. My birds pets first, egg producers second. I have several at 8years and older. another good reason to hatch eggs from older hens is that they seem to throw more female offspring(atleast mine do). Since I started hatching from my older girls my ratio of pullets to cockerels has shifted so much that I actually ask them for a couple boys now! My head hen is going on 9. I hope I get to enjoy her company for another decade.

Felicia May 21st, 2012

I agree, I love all my chickens, and they do have pet status. I have them for more reasons then just eggs, such as also giving the bird a loving environment and happy life. In urban setting when you are only allowed 3-5 birds it makes it much harder to keep geriatric birds. I love all my birds and managed to find a new home for two older birds, but still miss them all the time! If it were possible for us to live in the country to have more birds we would, and I would keep my older birds too.

Amber May 21st, 2012

After feeding my family and entertaining us all, my girls deserve to get the full retirement pan.

Maery Rose May 21st, 2012

Love the tongue in cheek writing and I agree with what you’re saying, but I’m in the same situation as Kate, only allowed four hens, no roosters. I have 4 hens now that are only 5 weeks old. I’ll see where my opinion lays when my chickens are older.

tonya kinney May 21st, 2012

I know for sure chickens CAN NOT like Kenny Rogers much at all Especially the older birds. Aren’t they the ones you eat? LOL

morningbeam May 21st, 2012

Pets with a full retirement plan at our house BUT there MAY still be a (positive) Kenny Rodger reference in here ….. the FIRST thing I thought of was “Through the Years”…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xXTqY3I1o0 … its what I think of when thinking of my 4 girls – they make me think of life in fast forward and it’s going to break my heart when they (doesn’t even feel like it’s possible) pass away. Unless something better comes out in the next decade though. Kenny Rodgers “Through the Years” is most likely what I’ll set their memorial video to……

Lissa May 22nd, 2012

That is a great song. I may have to go on a Kenny Rogers jag today. 🙂

Chris May 22nd, 2012

All our ladies and gents are part of our family. They all have names and their own personality. We enjoy them so much, not just for the delicious fresh eggs they provide, but for the sheer entertainment. Our oldest girls, Tilly, Patty, and Polly are now eight, stilly laying, and follow me in the yard like puppies! I would never consider culling the older girls. The flock is richer because of them!

Barbara SR, BA, Sociology:Animals in Human Society. May 24th, 2012

I agree with those people who allow their chickens to live out their natural life span. I am glad the “no lay eggs then no life” rule does not apply to humans. I would have been disposed of many years ago. I have children and grandchildren and I feel that watching and helping me treat older animals with love and respect is a good life lesson for them. Our goose lived until she was 22 years old. I have had and still have chickens well into their teens, years from laying their last egg. They are fun to watch and add joy to our family.

Aurelia June 19th, 2012

I have a hen that is going on ten and lays a egg a day

Coco Rogers October 2nd, 2012

My girls are pets first; I don’t eat my cats when they get old. I understand the practical mindset behind culling, but I simply could not do it to my own fluffy butts, who run to me so trustingly. These are excellent points for keeping older birds!

Ellen Green October 2nd, 2012

I LOVE this article! Lissa is a lovely girl whom I have had the privilege of e-knowing and she is a dedicated, kind and compassionate human being. I will save this for years down the road… Poetic and sensible… Thank you Lissa…
Ellen Green

George Castonguay October 3rd, 2012

My chickens, even the roos, are my buddies. Egg production is nice and I enjoy both eating and giving away the lovely fresh eggs my ladies produce. I could never ‘process’ a buddy.

Aaron November 13th, 2014

I love commenting on really old posts.

I think every flock has it’s own goal. In my flock, the goal for most of the birds is making eggs. If my hens keep up production for 10 years, I’ll keep them 10 years. If a hen can’t lay two eggs a week when she’s three years old, then she’s off to the freezer.

I do also have a few special chickens who are pets, and I’m not concerned about their egg output. They get a free ride. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

Ros November 12th, 2015

I agree, but as meat eaters we have learnt to kill and eat our rooster chicks. However, when our old rooster attacked my 6yo we have decided he has to go but we can’t eat him as he is our pet too. There is an element of preparation for eating home grown meat that the children have not had with ‘Mushroom’. He will be killed, but will be buried in his ‘safe’ spot in the garden.

Deb February 1st, 2018

My husband built me a beautiful coop that matches the design of our home, including a copper CupollaI thought, I thought- how nice of him to build such a magnificent coop for the chickens that I was about to raise!!! Little did I I know that he did it because he saw a nice tool shed and workshop. Little did HE know that chickens live longer than a few years. My girls were hatched in 2008. They all quit laying some time ago but like most of you said, they are “my girls”, they make me laugh and they are great for my garden. I think my husband has a few more years to go before he gets that shed. All my girls are strong and healthy, I don’t see them going anywhere for a long time!!

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