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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41 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!

  8. Tami says:

    I have a 12 year old silkie mix. Best chicken I have ever had. She’s sat on and raised a couple of clutches. So sweet and kind. I fear she is blind now. I keep her in the coop with our small flock but have to keep her separated as the other hens will pick on her now. She doesn’t roost anymore likes to lay in the straw in her barrel. She will live out all her natural days still with my love and affection, eggs or no eggs.

    1. that is wonderful!! Old hens really do still have a lot to give!

  9. Hattie says:

    I have a two 10 years old backyard chicken, one of them very sick at the moment, we have been in out for the vet, she Is not improving and break my heart, I love them so much, I would of be happy if they make it 12 year old, they been gentle great friends to me last ten years, 😔❤

    1. Awww it can be so hard when you see them declining. I hope you still have a few good years with them ❤️❤️

  10. Hattie says:

    unfortunately my baby past away two days a go, and my heart is aching .

    1. oh no! I am so sorry to hear that, it is always so hard losing a pet

  11. I have a hen that is almost nine. One of the younger girls in our flock has been attacking her and bloodying her comb. We isolated the bully and the harassment stopped for a few months. Now we are approaching winter and she is being bullied by this hen again. We have the bully hen in isolation . I really want my old gal to live out get days in peace and I am most distressed with this situation with winter coming on. Any suggestions?

    1. awww that is so sad!! I hate when the older girls get picked on, it makes me so sad. You are doing a great job by isolating the bully. If that doesn’t work your only other option (beside rehoming the bully) would be to set up two flocks, one with the older girl and 2-3 of your nicest girls and the other flock. Hopefully it won’t come to that and the bully will be nicer after her time out

  12. alyssa says:

    My family and I have a few chickens. The first was an accident. She was eating underneath one of our bird feeders. My mom looked up favorite foods for chickens and started making our feathered friend meals that looked like appetizer plates. She’s a white leghorn, and she’s so affectionate. She’s kind of a house chicken but goes outside when she wants. We absolutely love her, so of course we aren’t keeping her just for eggs.

    I don’t eat meat or eggs, but we have a lot of rescues of many different species. I don’t like to buy animal products because I know how awful mass production is, but it’s very hard to stick to that when I need to feed cats, dogs, ferrets, and a few other creatures that can’t go entirely without meat. We adopted 7 hens rescued from a battery farm after realizing how awesome chickens are. They don’t lay often, but we get a few eggs a month from them. Our ‘stray’ lays everyday. I took her to the vet because she was laying 2 eggs per day frequently. The vet told me she’s very young and she gets so many different foods that it wasn’t a problem and she’ll stop laying so much within the next year. I use the eggs in homemade food for other animals and give the shells back to the birds.

    There is a local backyard farming community here. This is farm country, but a lot of people that don’t live on actual farms still raise some of their own food. I saw 33 advertisements for ‘good homes’ for hens in one day of browsing. It didn’t take long to figure out that they were older hens that weren’t laying anymore. I”d like to take in some of those birds, but I don’t like encouraging people to get more chickens that they won’t want after laying stops -which will result in more chickens needing ‘good homes’ in about 3 years. Anyone have any advice on this subject? We’ve already had one chicken dropped off on our property after word got out that we had rescue chickens.

    1. That is so wonderful that you provide these girls with a safe home! I wish more people would start to see the value in older chickens. Chickens are very smart and friendly and can certainly be considered pets. But unfortunately for many people they only see them as livestock, and there is not much you can do to change that. The best you can do is to educate people on a chicken’s life span. Many people start keeping backyard chickens without doing a lot of research. They are excited for the eggs, but don’t realize that after their 3rd birthday or so the eggs are going to dramatically decrease and that bird could continue to live for several more years. I do eat meat, but I don’t raise my birds for meat, and I don’t take issue with people that do – but all these people looking for “good homes” for the old hens are clearly not people looking to raise meat birds. The fact they need to accept is that there are very few kind hearted people like yourself that want to look after chickens that are no longer producing well, and most of those “good homes” will likely be processing those birds for animal feed (which I don’t fault farmers for, fresh chicken is excellent protein for dogs & cats, it’s just these people are kidding themselves if they think they will find a good “pet” home for these birds). It really just all comes down to education and getting people to think long term when they start caring for any animal

  13. My oldest hen, Hannah Banana, was 12 when she died, but now Thelma is 13 and still going strong. She still roosts, she wanders out to the larger yard and explores, however she has vision problems. I’m not sure if it is glaucoma, but her aim is way off. I make sure she gets her food and water, and so far so good. She does not show any signs of slowing down. You go, girl.

    1. that is awesome!! Keep going Thelma!

  14. Glenda says:

    Geri, congratulations to you and Thelma. Wonderful that you are giving Thelma the special attention she needs. If you give her a bowl of food like commercial chicken feed or corn or birdseed, it probably doesn’t matter if her aim isn’t as precise as it used to be?
    My Granita sometimes goes outside with her ‘sister’ Bling; but she also has a lot of ‘couch potato’ days. She has a special feeding station, and at night before she drops off to sleep I make sure she has a nice drink of water; I hold the water container in front of her as long as she wants to sip water. She has developed arthritis, so may not take the initiative to get all the feed and water she needs on her own. She’ll celebrate her 6th birthday soon – young for arthritis, maybe, but she has developed it, anyhow. It could be related to a couple of mishaps she experienced in her youth. (I hope she has a long future ahead of her as a spoiled brat.)

  15. Joe lynn says:

    One day when I open my phone I will no longer have to see hideous articles like this that are completely savage but seem normal to everyone else. One day, more likely when we no longer have wars and are killing each other because we are no longer killing our animal cousins, it’ll be a better place to LOVE and live. I don’t know how anyone can bring kids into a savage world as this.
    One day this article will seem completely violent. People will be shocked to read it, that is, if this generation allows the world to continue, as all of its cruelty to animals is why we are intrinsically motivated to kill each other.

    1. I respect your opinions and motivations even if I don’t share your belief that one day the entire world will be vegan. As an animal lover myself who is also an omnivore, I wish more people would raise their own livestock. The life of a chicken on a small farm is miles different from those on factory farms. And if one must eat meat, the least we can do is provide them the best life while they are here and give them a respectful death. While I don’t eat my chickens or write about raising meat birds, I would suggest that homesteading websites in general are probably not the place for you

  16. Thank you for this wonderful article. I often refer to my flock as “the geriatric” flock as eight of my hens are well over six and one that is 13. I always let my chickens live out their entire natural life. It’s tough when I can see the beginnings of problems. I have a veterinarian who will help out when the time comes. I never eat my chickens, although I do eat chicken when out.

  17. Janet says:

    Hello, I have 5 chickens. Two are laying, I would love to know which are the oldest, as three go in early and two stay out till quite late. Would they be the young or the older. There are 3 years between the oldest and the layers but I can’t tell which are. Two still have beautiful clean legs, they are all very healthy and free range on a huge property

    1. I have found my older ladies tend to return to the coop earlier in the evening and the younger ones stay out closer to dusk, so that is probably a good clue

      1. Janet says:

        Thank you

  18. Beverly Burgess says:

    My rescue girl is approximately 6 and recently started roosting in a pine woods area which is a distance from her coup that is shared by 3 other hens. She is mounting and slowing down. For the last 3 years she has waited at my back door where I pick her up carry her to the coup at roost time. Should I expect this change in her behavior as related to her aging?

    1. I’m surprised she is ranging out and trying to roost far from the coop. As my girls get up to 6 or 7 years they do tend to stay closer to the coop and definitely slow down. I wonder if she wanders that far out during the day with the other chickens and then just doesn’t feel like going all the way back.

  19. Glenda Wood says:

    My arthritic girl, Granita, born in 2016, goes out the front door once in a while, for fresh air,. sunshine and maybe a dust bath. Then she comes to the front door and waits to be let in. At night he sleeps in her special place, atop a storage bin at the end of the couch. She has some little ‘pet steps’ so she can easily get into her Behren’s indoor tub of shavings to relax and nap during the day…outdoor life? It’s for the other birds! Roosting out in the pine woods? Heaven forfend!

    1. lol that is awesome! She is an old lady who knows just what she wants!

  20. Out of a dozen chickens 5 years ago, I have 1 remaining rooster and 1 hen who have never lived together; their pens are next to each other. We live in Mid-Michigan with winter temperatures at night in teens but they each have nicely insulated coops. Should we keep them separate or house them together upcoming winter. She is still laying and we think attacked her last roommate over an egg. He wants to mate. I can see things go badly together.

    1. that is definitely a tricky situation, it would really be ideal if they could live together, but the rooster is likely going to over mate the hen causing her to lose feathers and possibly get injured. And it sounds like she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself so she could even instigate a fight with him. I think I would leave the situation as is with them separate, but as soon as you can you should look into getting some female friends for her

  21. Would getting a couple more chickens spread out the stress?

    1. Yes if you could get a few more hens then you could let the rooster live with them so he can have options with mating and doesn’t just focus all his “love” to one lady. Chickens are flock animals and really feel safest in a group of at least three

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