The Tangled Nest

The Tangled Nest header image 2

Urban Chicken Retirement: What to do when older chickens stop laying?

July 26th, 2011 · 64 Comments ·

Saying goodbye to Marigold, our favorite Buff Orpington ever.

We were a host once again this year for Seattle Tilth’s Chicken Coop and Urban Farm Tour, and one of the main questions would-be chicken keepers voiced was what to do with older chickens after they stop laying, or slow way down?  The numbers vary by breed and individual, but most chickens lay really well the first year, slow a bit in the winter the second year, then taper off after that, laying very little after year three or maybe four.  But these same chickens will live to be six years old, or more (and even if your chickens lay longer than this–all will outlive their laying days).  What happens after that?  This is a question worth pondering before you commit to urban chicken-keeping.  Few of us have the space to keep all those chickens while adding new ones to the flock, and feeding them can be expensive when you don’t get fresh eggs in return for all that organic chicken food.  We interact closely with our chickens, and are too attached to them to either eat them (Claire and I don’t eat meat, anyway) or donate them to the boa constrictor exhibit at our local zoo (which is an option some consider…).  So we are fortunate to have an uncle who lives in rural Maple Valley, and allows our older chickens to roam his fields in idyllic chicken retirement.  Recently we moved our young girls, Adelaide, Ophelia, and Ethel into the big coop, and the “old girls”–Chrysanthemum, Buttercup, Marigold, and Esmeralda–went to “live in the country.”  Our sadness at saying goodbye to these sweet hens was tempered by their evident happiness in the freedom of their new home.

Arriving at Uncle Joe's farm.

First wondering wander in more space than they've ever seen.

Settling right in to idyllic retirement.

Couldn't resist this photo: Buttercup in the buttercups.

New friends.

We’re very fortunate that for our elder-hens, “going to live in the country” is not a euphemism.  But not everyone has an Uncle Joe.  How do you humanely handle aging chickens in your urban coop?

(2011 addition: Our beloved Marigold came back to us from the farm six months later! Read the story here)

 

chickens, urban farming

64 Comments so far ↓

  • W Moore

    I’m lucky. I am “Uncle Joe” so my chickens get to live as long as they want.
    I’m not sure I agree with you data. I have three and four y.o. chickens that still lay fairly well. My five and six y.o. Amauracanas still lay.

    • Sharon B

      My husband and I started with 12 chickens 6 plus years ago and just lost #11 Elvira to most likely a reproductive problem. She layed almost every day,(other than while molting) which I have found to be human induced perhaps. Because I have learned that ordering chicks(ie hens for laying and for the fun of raising them) results in the not so humane deaths of male chicks that I looked into adopting from a rescue site. They have info on their site stating that laying more than 2-3 clutches per year is not what nature intended and that layer feed increases egg laying that is not normal and contributes to reproductive problems and cancer. This makes me sad and even though I am a vegetarian and thought that eggs are a delicious and humanitarian way to be able to eat, I am not so sure now and I will probably adopt more chickens because of this and follow the guidelines recommended by chickenrun of Minnesota which suggests feeding a sustaining feed rather than a laying feed. They say that the hens still lay but not as often and that they are healthier. We live in the country so we are able to keep our hens for as long as they live-they are part of our family.

      • Lyanda

        Sharon, these are all important considerations–thank you. Everyone, I hope you’ll check the website Sharon mentions–http://www.brittonclouse.com/chickenrunrescue/. Click on the “proper feeding” link for a pdf on sustaining vs. laying feed. Super interesting, and not often considered.

      • Aria

        Thank you for this info. I’ve never heard of sustaining feed and will look into it. Although, I originally obtained the hens for their eggs, I have come to appreciate them for themselves. Their optional health is more important than the eggs. I have two hens who lay every day and I am concerned about them. It seems a bit much.

      • Aria

        Not that I have any problem with hens raised for eggs or meat if treated humanely. It’s just that I plan to keep my birds for their entire lifespan so I’d rather slow down the laying if it keeps them healthier. I have the acreage and can afford to keep retired hens. I know that not everyone can do that.

  • Birdsong

    I live rurally, so probably shouldn’t even weigh in. My hens have generally tapered off slower than yours, and I have more room. I do think your solution is a good one.

  • Rachel B.

    We don’t have an “Uncle Joe.” We tell people you either eat them or they are your pet just like a dog or cat.

  • Erica

    Lyanda! it’s like you read my mind! My husband has finally relented and agreed that we can keep chickens in town. I’ve kept chickens before in the country, and what I know about myself is that I can’t kill them. Before I get chicks, I want to have a plan for this – one of my awesome neighbors is a zookeeper and offered to butcher them and feed them to the lions. I’m not sure if I’ll take her up on it, I like your solution better – and I do have a rural friend who might be willing to provide a retirement home for menopausal hens — so we’ll see what happens.

    • lyanda

      Yes, start asking around–so often there is someone who “knows someone.” When we got a chick who was a rooster, the feed store where we got him knew a woman with a rural home who would take him–she doesn’t even eat them, she just “likes roosters,” which is wonderful!

  • Deborah

    I met a lovely gardener on the Garden Tour this summer with the most amazing chicken coop. I could see her hens were no spring chickens so I asked her whether they still laid eggs and if not, did she cull her flock somehow? (The culling of the flock is the principal reason I don’t have a coop myself). She said no, these girls are my friends now. They can lay or not, as they see fit. I wish I could share a picture of her coop with you!

    • lyanda

      That’s a great attitude–wish I had enough space for both laying hens, and my older chickens. But I’ve never seen the girls as happy as they are at their new farm!

  • Sonja

    I don’t suppose your Uncle Joe would like to add to his flock? I’ve got two sweet hens that are nearing their end! :)

    That’s funny you should mention the snake option. I was at the Woodland Park Zoo last week and there was a sign in the reptile house that stated that all animals fed to the snakes were humanely killed. Any ideas on the specifics? I wouldn’t have a problem giving a non-laying chicken to the zoo but would want to make sure that she came to a swift and as painless as possible end.

    • lyanda

      Sonja, as we didn’t seriously consider the zoo, I didn’t look into it deeply, though we have friends who did take their chickens to the zoo. I would call WPZand ask them–I bet they’re open to answering all your questions (and if you do, let us know what they say!).

  • Frith

    I had to work this question out before I got hens as well. I went on the tour this summer and in conversations with my son, who is very excited to get and raise chicks, we realized that I could not kill and eat a bird that we had raised. Partly because it would be too tough by the time it had stopped laying, and partly because it just wouldn’t feel right. On the other hand, I can imagine raising broiler birds and killing and eating them. I was a veg. for 8 years but am no longer, and my health has vastly improved since I have been adding more animal protein to my diet. I think I’ve made peace with being an omnivore, and processing my own chickens is in line with my desires to be as closely connected as possible to my food. However, I have yet to raise the hatchet to a living creature, so we’ll see how it all pans out!

  • Donna

    I can’t believe people get rid of their chickens when laying stops or slows down! I’m appalled. My girls don’t have to ‘produce’ to be cherished. What kind of folks are you? You can afford cage free eggs at the store.

    • lyanda

      Hi, Donna. Most people in either urban or rural places don’t choose to keep chickens for the same reasons as we would, say, a cat or dog. It is in part a way of making sustainable, connected food choices, and bringing our families into the “food ecosystem.” Like many urban chicken-keepers, I have space for just three or four hens, just the right amount for eggs for our family and to share with friends–I wish I had space to let my beloved hens roam after their laying years while adding younger chickens, but I just don’t. That’s why I think it is important to think, before you commit to chickens, about how to care for them when they age.

      • Richard Date

        Old hens do not eat like the young ones. They are on a lower metabolism. So, if you can free range them, they can still be part of the flock without costing you too much for layer crumbles. And you might need an old broody to sit some eggs or adopt some bought chicks.
        I like to give all my girls the choice of the layer crumbles or the garden veggies. It does not seem to deter the young hens’ egg laying much, if at all. Holistic hens. All the eggs have really good shells and the hens are not stressed.
        Once they get old, they are going to lay fewer eggs anyways, and with less appetite they are just not gobbling down the crumbles. They prefer to nibble and just eat more veggies during the day. They go to bed early, while the young hens are still active and gobbling the layer crumbles like pigs.
        It is important to have a lot of healthy food options available because the rooster does not need all that calcium either. Our rooster never hurts hens nor humans, and he keeps an eye out for hawks, so I think we need to consider his diet also.
        Chickens form a tight community in a free range back yard. They are far more intelligent than I ever imagined.

    • Pam

      Just looking through here in consideration of having chickens at my city home. I can afford cage free eggs at the store, but I trust that how any hens I have live or die will be better in my hands than in those of a commercial chicken farmer. Cage free only means that there is an open door to the cage, not that the hens have anyplace to go. Pastured, right now, is probably better, though with commercialization comes ways to get around having words like natural, cage free, or pastured mean what consumers would expect them to mean.

    • Amanda

      I agree with Donna! How could you just get rid of your favorite chicken? And the person who’s gonna feed her chickens to a giant man eating snake should be ashamed.

    • Alexa Wilson

      Really?! What do you think happens to the chickens that lay the eggs you buy at the store?

      • Travis

        RIGHT!!! How naive. Does anyone think the migrant worker who culls the chickens at the factory farm is more humane than you will be? The emotional pain you feel when you cull a bird is what makes you human. How many birds does that worker cull per year?

    • Chelsey

      Your view seems pretty naive and judgmental to me. If you choose for your chickens to be pets and not a means of getting healthy organic food that is your decision, but saying that you’re appalled, that people want to give their food source a healthy life and then continue the circle of life by feeding another animal, or giving them to “Uncle Joe”? that sounds a little dramatic to me. Guess what, snakes need to eat as much as the next animal, just because you don’t find them cute and friendly doesn’t mean they don’t deserve an organic fed and healthy chicken as a meal. It’s the circle of life sweetheart.

      • sannas

        thanks for that input, as i felt bad about reading Donna’s comment. I’m getting chickens because we want excellent quality eggs and buying $6.50 a dozen for pastured organic eggs for a family who loves eating eggs is too pricey! I have a 2 acre property and i want to give them the best quality feed and care and exercise. I already found a farmer that pastures his animals that will help cull my old laying hens, since its such a tough decision. :(

  • meg- grow and resist

    @ Donna- What do you think happens to chickens that lay the cage free eggs at the store? They come from businesses and, when they are done producing, they are likely slaughtered. They don’t hang out until they die a natural death of old age while wandering at will around the farm.

    People make all kinds of (hopefully complex) decisions about how they source their meat and eggs, should they chose to eat them and/or raise them.
    For me- I will not eat our chickens when they stop laying. I have been unable to eat chicken since we began raising them. Once they are through laying we will find a farm as described above or give them to someone who wishes to humanely slaughter them for consumption.
    If I am particularly attached to a few hens I would considering keeping them into old age, space allowing.
    They are pets, yes, but there primarily function is to produce eggs. I can buy eggs at a store or I can raise them at home being 100% sure what they eat and what kind of life they have had.

    • lyanda

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Meg. We could never eat our chickens, either. That said, though it is outside of my sensibility, I consider anyone who is working to respectfully take their food choices outside of the evils of the corporate agriculture system (like Frith, above) to be friend, not foe!

  • Stephanie

    I only have a dozen or so chickens on our very large farm, so the older ones carry on pottering around with the other s. Plenty of space for everyone. I’ve found mine lay into their fourth and fifth years without much of a slow-down. You do get more odd eggs – yolkless or double yolked – but you still get eggs! Maybe French chickens have been bred to lay for longer?

    • lyanda

      Stephanie, you are so fortunate to have such space. Yes, “pottering around” is a perfect way for a chicken to live out her years.

  • Matt Bowers

    It’s ok to eat your older chickens but the saying tough old bird is accurate.

  • David Ruggiero

    I’m with Uncle Joe. After two years, they seem to stop laying a little earlier in the winter, and start a little later in the spring, and maybe have one less egg a week in the summer. But at _least_ through year four, I always got enough production out of my girls to not consider them freeloaders. So the window of “retirement” is really only years 5-6 or thereabouts, in my book.

  • Michael Wilmeth

    We have a youngish flock, after a couple years without chickens. I had another flock for several years. They never stopped laying entirely, but probably did cease to be worth feeding from a strictly economic point of view. I’m a vegetarian, and I’m not willing to kill unproductive hens—it seems ungrateful. But it happened that coyotes and foxes took care of the old hens at some point, which was okay with me. (We’re country-dwellers, so predators are available to provide this free culling service.)

  • Matt Kagan

    Well, given the tenor of the comments so far, I suspect this will be an unpopular answer: we wait until they’re really unproductive, and then we kill them (er, “cull” them).

    Never thought about donating to the zoo, but that’s something to look into. I’m not morally opposed to eating them, but it seems more trouble than it’s worth for a few old layers, which aren’t going to be good anyway.

    • diane (the wandering chicken and mini-farm)

      matt…. two words!!! pressure cooker… put those old ladies in the pressure cooker for about 45 minutes n u wont find any better meat anywhere!!! u get about a quart of chicken and a pint of broth from each bird… i continue to debone and then can my chicken for use at a later date…

    • lyanda

      Ha! You may be right about “popularity,” Matt, but this is an honest inquiry, and honest answers are welcome–popular or not…Thanks.

    • KathiD

      Matt, how do you kill the older hens?
      I have one who I thought would be long since gone from her malady–she has a large swollen belly and waddles around–and although she doesn’t seem to be suffering, if I thought she was, I would want to humanely end her life. But I don’t know HOW!

  • diane (the wandering chicken and mini-farm)

    i am a country girl so i believe in “harvesting” my chickens once they r older- i currently have 86 chickens n chicks as well as 26 that have been canned this year. they r about the only meat that i eat, as i kno what is in it and where i came from. it is healthy! if u cud, i wud also have a goat for milking and raise a hog once a year for meat… and i DO treat everyone very well during their lives! but i do NOT do the killing…
    HOWEVER, i understand the urban environment, n if in that environment once again, i wud NOT harvest my pet chickens… there wud only b a couple n wud jus b another pets and b treated as such.

  • KathiD

    I intended (still intend) to let my girls live out their lives here, which I thought would be 10-12 years, adding a few new hens every year or two. It turns out that, in spite of my best efforts, a bobcat has taken some of the older ones AND my beloved rooster, and that modern hatchery chicks seem to have a much-shortened lifespan, more like 3-5 years.
    Still, I am lucky to have enough room to let the older girls putter around, as has been said. The only problem is that the younguns and older ones have formed rival gangs, who only barely get along! Ahhhhhh, farm life!

  • KathiD

    P.S. After suffering the loss of some of my first flock of chickens to predators and sudden unexplained death, I declined to name the second flock, and I try to think of them as something other than “pets,” although it’s tough not to get attached to them after raising them from day-old chicks.

  • Deborah @ Antiquity Oaks

    We’ve had a flock of around 50 hens for the past nine years, and when they’re 3-4 years old, we butcher them. Anyone who has NOT had a stew hen doesn’t know what they’re missing! As Julia Child lamented in her 1986 “The Way to Cook,” where have those venerable birds gone? She complained about their disappearance from the store, and then she gives directions for making broth with chicken scraps because stew hens are no longer available. We raise 100% of our own meat on our farm, and stew hens are easily my favorite meat. Like fine wine and the best cheese, meat takes time to develop flavor, and stew hens easily win the prize for most flavorful! Like many things related to real food, however, the knowledge to cook a stew hen has been lost. You only need to simmer it in a pot of hot water for a few hours, and not only will you have the best meat ever for making casseroles or salads, but you will also have delicious broth for making lentil soup. I have directions for cooking a stew hen, as well as homemade noodles from your homegrown eggs, in my book, “Homegrown and Handmade,” which comes out this fall.

  • Tractorgal

    Deborah, I would love to have some of your recipes. I have about 5 hens I want to take to a farmer for processing. My mom always used hers older hens and they were delish.

  • tnt

    I have 9 hens. They are 2.5 years old. I get ~3 eggs a day. This has been going on since winter. Nothing has changed in their environment, only one is in molt. They get oyster shell and have food and water all day, they get out of their coup and spend all day in their 400 sq. ft. run. Any ideas??

    • lyanda

      tnt, while that is somewhat early, it’s not at all unheard of for some hens to taper off quite dramatically at that age. It sounds like you are doing everything right. Do you have any windows in your coop? Getting earliest morning light might help…

      • tnt

        Yes, they have two big windows and can leave the coup as early as they want and go out to the run.
        Yesterday, I got 1 (one) egg. Everything I read about the breeds that we picked, said good layers and good laying for 5 ish years. We have several different breeds, so all of them stopping at once seems very odd; almost environmental, but nothing that I control has changed.

  • lyanda

    Dear me! How did my sweet little post about urban chickens enjoying the rural buttercups turn into a stream of advice about stewing old hens? (Tom, not a vegetarian, says, “We’ll have to go get those chickens in a couple of years and try out that stew…” Eek!)
    That’s blogging for ya…Thanks for all the comments!

  • Tricia

    Wow! they are LUCKY chooks. I wish we had an Uncle Joe that could take our two roosters. they are temporarily staying at a friends farm, but i’ll likely have to finalise their fate soon. It’s easy to become detached from the fact that raising chickens for eggs can involve having decide the fate of chickens – first for the male chicks and then for the old hens.

    I’m sure your chickens are going to have a lovely retirement :-)

  • angie

    There isn’t enough hen boxes for all of them anyways so we let ours age gracefully together, they have strong relationships and are quite tight knit. They are bonded. This might be controversial, but they indeed care about each other and get stressed out when one passes on- and they do protect each other as well.

    • KathiD

      Hi Angie–That’s what I thought, too, but I tried all the remedies for egg-binding that I could find–several warm soaks in the tub each day, even put on surgical gloves to feel for an egg (!) and there was nothing. And she has been this way for nearly 3 months! Still eating and seemingly not in pain, but waddling around with a swollen belly.

      • angie

        I hope it’s nothing serious, maybe it’s just water retention or something. Maybe peritonitis? She’s not in pain so that’s good :)

  • Cindy

    As I read through the comments, it seems that the fewer the chickens, the more attached folks are to them, and more likely to be willing to keep feeding them into their old age. At times I’ve had 24+, and it’s just too expensive to keep buying that organic feed when they are well past their prime laying years … yet having them sent to Freezer Camp is always something I wrestle with.

    This year, for the first time, we also have a small contingent of meat birds — 25 — and they’re halfway to being “ready.” I think of all the women throughout the world who have been killing a chicken for the dinner table for centuries, and hope that I can summon up some of that courage this time to help with the deed!

    There’s also, I think, the difference between “bird people” — folks who are partial to birds in general as pets — and those of us who aren’t. I’m more fond of furry four-legged types!

  • Sharon

    I am fortunate to live in a rural area so that my chickens can live happily until the end of their life. I also have 6 1/2 year old chickens that lay almost every day.

  • Martha

    Lyanda, This is an interesting discussion. My gals are 4 years old and still going strong (EE and Polish). My 3rd EE died from being egg bound last summer. We have 2 chicks to add to the flock this season. I’m not going to cull my girls when they stop laying. I’m just going to add new girls in every few years and see how that works.

    I think this 1-2 year laying timeframe has been greatly overstated. Commercial growers need to have a good egg-to-feed ratio to be profitable. Backyard chicken keepers generally don’t seem to need to turn a profit quite as much. I have noticed a general nervousness in backyard keepers when their chickens enter their second season. To cull or not to cull. That is the question.

    KathiD – Your hen definitely doesn’t sound egg bound. She would be dead by now. It sounds as though she might be an internal layer, which isn’t curable. Do a search on that and see if that sounds like what you are dealing with.

  • Katherine @ D & C

    Just wanted to say – love the photos – especially buttercup!

  • Return of the Prodigal Chicken: A Holiday Story

    [...] May, our older chickens went into Urban Chicken Retirement at my Uncle Joe’s farm in Maple Valley.  We’ve taken our aging flocks there in the [...]

  • Chicken Retirement « Home to Roost

    [...] Posted May 1, 2012 by chickenwoman in Chicken care, Urban agriculture. Tagged: chicken, farm, retirement. Leave a Comment I got a call yesterday from a reporter who wanted my opinion on “chicken retirement” – sending older hens who’ve stopped being productive to a local farm. Apparently there are farms in Portland that take in aged birds, allowing owners to get new egg producers without killing the nonproductive ones. (See this blog post for a first-hand account.) [...]

  • Jonathan

    Would anyone buy older chickens? Is there any market for that?

  • “No Stuff” Gift Guide of Northwest Experiences

    [...] stop laying eggs. It’s inevitable. So what do you do? Author Lyanda Haupt has blogged about retiring older hens to the idyllic countryside. Another option, of course, is to eat them. At Nettles Farm on [...]

  • Ally From Seattle

    Hello! I stumbled upon your site during my search for how to find eggs from chickens who are not killed once they reach a certain age (the main reason I don’t eat eggs). I love that you allow them to retire in the country. Someday, I would love to have my own chickens to care for but right now I am a graduate student and it doesn’t work with my life at this point. Do you know of any farms I can direct people to get eggs that are from chickens who are not killed? People often ask me this question and I don’t know where to direct them. Any help would be appreciated!

  • Abbie

    I don’t have an Uncle Joe either, but I will be looking for one! I am still tending my first “flock” of 5 hens, and have not yet come to that time of making a decision on what to do with them when they no longer produce. I know, though, that I will not be able to keep them, and aquire a new flock when they age, because we live in a neighborhood inside of city limits with restrictions on the number of birds we are allowed. While I love them, and know them as well as I know my most beloved mini schnauzer companion who shares my meals, and my bed, BUT I’m not sure I want to house, feed, and care for them when they are no longer producing since egg production is the only reason I even aquired my flock to begin with. I’m optimistic that I will be able to find a retirement home for them, but if not, then I would really prefer to harvest them myself. That way I would be sure that they were not traumatized in a new place with new handlers before they were butchered. They are comfortable with me, and wouldn’t be scared of what I was doing to them before it happened. I KNOW I would be able to find a recipient for the meat since I don’t think I would be able to stomach it myself.
    As far as harvesting after thier prime, though, I will just think of it in the same way as putting down an elderly dog that wasn’t maintaining a decent quality of life.

  • Abbie

    I don’t have an Uncle Joe either, but I will be looking for one! I am still tending my first “flock” of 5 hens, and have not yet come to that time of making a decision on what to do with them when they no longer produce. I know, though, that I will not be able to keep them, and aquire a new flock when they age, because we live in a neighborhood inside of city limits with restrictions on the number of birds we are allowed. While I love them, and know them as well as I know my most beloved mini schnauzer companion who shares my meals, and my bed, I’m not sure I can house, feed, and care for them when they are no longer producing. Egg production is the only reason I even aquired my flock to begin with. I’m optimistic that I will be able to find a retirement home for them, but if not, then I would really prefer to harvest them myself. That way I would be sure that they were not traumatized in a new place with new handlers before they were butchered. They are comfortable with me, and wouldn’t be scared of what I was doing to them before it happened. I could make it peaceful and humane. I KNOW I would be able to find a recipient for the meat since I don’t think I would be able to stomach it myself.
    As far as my views on harvesting them after thier prime, (if i have to) I just think of it in the same way as putting down an elderly dog that wasn’t maintaining a decent quality of life.

  • Tawni

    I’m so glad you have access to a farm where your older hens can go and live out their natural lives. I recently contacted Vital Farm (you can find their eggs at Whole Foods) and asked what they did when their hens stopped laying. They said they try to give their hens away, and if they’re unable to, they humanely cull them and send the meat to families in need in Africa. Now, they could just be lying, but 1.) I hope not! and 2.) I think thats a really good solution to the problem a lot of farmers face when hens start to slow in their egg production. I then asked if Vital Farm goes through some sort of nonprofit, and am waiting on their reply, but I do think this is an interesting solution.

  • KAM

    My grandmother, a fantastic cook, claimed that THE secret to great chicken dumplings (and soup, etc) is to make it using an old hen.

    I would love to know where to buy them.

Leave a Comment