Chickens

What to do with aging hens

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Every year, more and more people are opting to keep a small flock of hens in their backyard.  Some do it because it’s trendy, some because they don’t want to support factory farms, some want to be part of the local food movement.  Regardless of the reason, there is an increasing desire to become more connected with your food.

Chickens are pretty low maintenance and can be kept in even a small urban backyard so they make a good first step in backyard farming.. The romantic vision of chickens foraging and softly clucking in your yard can be pretty tempting.  Unfortunately, too many people jump into backyard farming without doing the proper research.  The sad truth is that hens start laying at around 5 months and will lay eggs fairly reliably until around their second or third year.  They will continue to lay eggs after that, but with every passing year their production will decline drastically, and chickens can live for a decade or more.

 Many towns are facing the growing problem of unwanted chickens being released into the wild or crowding animal shelters; abandoned by people who no longer want to spend the time & money caring for hens not producing eggs.  Having an aging hen or two around is not a big deal when you have two dozen birds, but when you have a small flock of 2-3 birds it can be a problem!  So what to do with your aging chicken population?

Processing

The kind way to say slaughtering, this is the option many homesteaders choose when egg production slows down.  Hens are so versatile, while they live they provide you generously with eggs, and they can also fill your stew pot.  We eat chicken several times a week at our house, but I can’t bring myself to actually eat one of my chickens, they are strictly pets.  If you know you are going to go this route, it’s best not to name each bird, or think of them as pets.  If right from the start in your mind they are livestock, it will make things easier.  If you don’t have the stomach for doing the deed yourself, contact a local butcher or fellow chicken farmer to see if they can help you out.

The question of aging hens

Old Folks Farm

If you don’t want to process your hens yourself, you can try contacting a local farm or fellow homesteader to see if they are interested in taking them off your hands.  Just know that most likely, they will be taking them to eat or to use their meat in animal feed.  Just because they are a farm doesn’t mean they have the space & resources to care for everyone’s aged hens. If you are not ok with that, this is probably not the option for you.

This option is much better than simply releasing them in the wild. Hens have very few defensive skills, they do not see well in the dark, and there are so many predators that would love a chicken dinner.  A chicken raised in captivity will likely not last more than a couple days on it’s own.  At least a farmer trained in processing will do it in a humane, quick way and use the meat to feed their family or livestock.

The question of aging hens

Living Out Their Natural Life

You have raised this helpless bird since it was a day old, you named it, nursed it through sickness, posted photos of her on Facebook….it’s no surprise many chicken owners are no more able to kill their chickens than they would be able to kill their dog.  So what is it like to have aging hens?

They may not be making you breakfast everyday anymore, but that doesn’t mean they are not a productive member of the flock!  They can and will still lay eggs well past the decade mark, it just might only be a few every month.  Old hens are excellent bug hunters.  They know your yard and the best places to look for a good meal.   And of course, they are still giving you plenty of rich compost for your garden.

Your older girls will teach your younger girls about flock life.  If you are able to increase your flock with younger chickens, you will find the older ladies will “train” the babies.   My older girls have trained the younger ones to come back from free ranging when I rattle the food bin and to excitedly greet me when I come into the yard.  Younger hens will learn by example how to build a nest, how to roost at night, how to interact as a flock member.  I have found that senior hens are far from being pushed aside old ladies, even our rooster respects them!

Just like humans, your aging ladies will slow down.  They will spend more time lounging in the sun than foraging in the woods, more time enjoying a leisurely dust bath than building the perfect nest.  This can be a plus on the side of keeping aging hens.  Anyone who has spent time relaxing in the yard watching their flock knows how entertaining chickens can be.  The old girls aren’t foraging to the far corners of the yard, they stick much closer to home where it’s easier for you to enjoy them.  They are more likely to hang out with you, or quietly sit on your lap…content to soak in the sunshine and leave the heavy digging to the young’uns.

Benefits of Chickens

But what are the challenges of keeping older hens?  First off, they don’t move as fast as they used to.  Predator proofing is important to keep them safe, and supervising free ranging (or employing a rooster) is a good idea.

They might have problems reaching high roosts.  Be sure you have a roost or two that is lower, or add a ladder to help them get up.

 Two common diseases found in older chickens are Marek’s and lymphoid leukosis.  Both can cause tumors and are generally fatal.  Many chickens are vaccinated against Marek’s disease as chicks, but unfortunately, the vaccine wears off after a few years. As their organs fail, they can also be susceptible to water belly, which is also fatal.  Click here to read more about water belly 

Their molting can take longer and be more stressful on them.  The aging reproductive systems often suffer from complications as well.  Their bodies want to still be producing eggs, but the factory is only open part time. Sometimes, this can result in odd or misshapen eggs or egg binding.  Salpingitis is an infection in the oviduct that generally only effects hens over two years old.  The symptoms of Salpingitis are hard to detect in it’s early, treatable stages so this is generally a fatal condition.

As you can see, while hens CAN live to 10, 12, possibly even 15 years that is a very rare exception.  Just like humans CAN live to 115; diseases or accidents usually strike us down well before that.  Realistically, you can expect a well cared for, well protected & lucky chicken to live 5-8 years in a backyard farm.  What is the oldest chicken you have had?

The question of aging hens


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14 Comments

  1. I have a hen that is probably 10 years old. She is some type of mixed smaller breed that flies really well and is very broody. I figured she had stopped laying eggs years ago but low and behold I found her on a nest last year when she was my only remaining chicken. Of course the eggs weren’t fertile so I snuck day old chicks under her one night and took her eggs. She raised that batch of feed store chicks up and taught them how to be great free range bug killers. This year she has a batch of 8 chicks she raised following her around but none of them are her breed so she hatched out the other hens eggs. She is an awesome mom. So if you have a broody older hen, keep her around to be your incubator.

    1. That’s great! Older hens do still have uses!

  2. Glenda Wood says:

    My Granita is 4+ years old, A barred rock hen. She’s slowing down a lot and I’m worried about her. She has persistent lameness and her veterinarian helps by prescribing anti-inflammatory medicine (Meloxicam).

    I was wondering if anyone has had success with feed additives for aging hens? I was looking at dietary phytosterols, and also thinking about Rapamycin, which some people give to dogs in to lengthen their lives. (https://agingdefeated.com/dogs-are-growing-younger-with-this-miracle-drug-can-it-help-you-too/ )

    Our flock, human and non-human alike, would miss Granita terribly were she to pass on. Any ideas or experiences?

    1. I don’t have any experience with the additives you mention, I do like to strengthen their diet with probiotics in the water though. My oldest hen right now is 8 years old and she is doing amazing – and still lays eggs fairly regularly!

    2. Katie says:

      We use colloidal silver in the water. It works like an antibiotic and is very effective.

  3. Thank you. My Granita is feeling better today. She took her Meloxicam, and also, after reading your response, I decided to try Electrolytes Plus, a multi-species nutritional supplement that contains five types of probiotic organisms in addition to the electrolytes, glycine and dextrose. I mixed a teaspoonful of the powder with about a half cup of water, and she’s been sipping it. both yesterday and today. Maybe this is what she needs.

  4. Hey I have a hen who recently got attacked by a cat, her feathers are missing on her sides, wings, neck, and legs, along with some cuts, it is now October, will her feathers grow back in time for winter?

    1. Poor thing! She should have time to recover before winter starts. Giving her some protein rich treats (like mealworms) or a feather fixer feed mix (look at your local feed store) can help speed things along

  5. Carole Shay says:

    Our chickens have free ranged on 2-acres of fenced property and have a nest box room and a lean-to for food and water. In winter they live in the heated nest box room and have access to a small fenced area.

    Question: We are down to our last Alaskan free range hen with temperatures well below freezing. I brought her into the house into a large open pen until I can figure what to do next. Eating her is not an option.

    Any suggestions how to keep her happy until I figure what’s next? The 2 dog’s love her and she is not freaked out in her pen with food, scratch block, plants here and there and water.

    1. Sounds like she has a pretty great set up for now! Are you planning on adding more chickens soon? Do you have other livestock she might be able to live with? Chickens really do best with other chickens so they can forage together and snuggle up together at night. But they could also possibly be ok with other poultry or even larger animals that they have bonded to (a few of my chickens LOVE my alpacas lol). I wouldn’t recommend putting her back out into the cold winter by herself, she will be stressed and cold. So I would either suggest you rehome her, get another chicken or two to keep her company, or buy some chicken diapers and have a house chicken 🙂 But while you figure things out, she should be ok in her current set up

  6. My Butterscotch is 10 years old (she turned a decade in May) and still going strong! She has been a pet from the beginning along with her coop mate Clover who lived to 8 years. Having got her as a present from my grandmother at the age of 11 I practically grew up with this hen 🙂

    1. That is so wonderful! Chickens can really make great pets, they are so much more than egg factories 🙂

  7. I’ve learned so much from you this morning! I was thinking about getting backyard chickens, and didn’t realize how short their egg-laying timespan is compared with their lifespan. I think it’d be hard not to think of them as pets, especially if they do stuff like sit on your lap.

    1. It’s not something I can do, they are definitely pets to me!

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