Some of my laying hens seem to be slowing down. How do I know when to butcher them?
If you choose to keep your hens beyond their first two years of laying, their production will gradually fall to the point that you’re paying more to feed and maintain them than what they’re returning in egg value — usually, that’s well before the end of their natural lives (5 to 10 years old).
Butchering the least-productive laying hens just before the onset of winter often makes the most sense, because egg production declines even further as the days grow shorter. After you butcher hens, be prepared to cook them differently than you would young meat birds. The older the bird, the tougher its meat is likely to be. According to Harvey Ussery, author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, the trick to preparing an old hen (or a culled mature cock) is long, slow, moist-heat cooking. “The best choice of all is to use the bird to make fabulous broth, which will be far better than broth from a younger bird,” Ussery says. After making broth, you can still use the meat that has been stripped off the bones in casseroles, stir-fries and other dishes.
Unless you want to keep your hens as pets, start by culling the least-productive ones first — but how do you know which are still going strong and which aren’t?
Ussery looks for these signs of a productive bird: 1) The vent is large, oval, soft and moist; 2) the abdomen, between the tip of the breastbone and the tips of the pubic bones, is large and soft; and 3) the pubic bones are wider apart than those on a non-laying chicken. Often the comb of a high-producing bird is larger, brighter and more flexible, too. Some people get a few new hens annually, choosing a different breed each year. That way, they can keep track of the age of each breed and retire them after about two to four years of production.
“Many people who produce eggs for market practice ‘two seasons and out,’” Ussery says. This strategy keeps egg production at its peak, but it also requires the effort and expense of starting new stock more frequently, so be sure to factor in those costs when you’re considering at what point to butcher hens.
To learn about raising chickens to eat rather than for egg production, see How to Raise Chickens for Meat.
Photo By Dreamstime/Christian Draghici: Take your hens from farm-fresh eggs to chicken legs.
Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.