I was talking to a friend the other day. She’s a gentle soul, a kind-hearted person who says, “I could never kill an animal” with wide, pained eyes that let you know she’s not talking in hyperbole.
She wants chickens. She wants them bad. She wants the experience of fluffy little chicks and she wants hens to weed for her and she wants her daughter to have that mini-backyard-petting-zoo experience.
She has, up until now, not given into her chicken-keeping desires. For this I am so proud of her.
You see, there’s a reality to chicken keeping that doesn’t show up when you are scanning Pinterest for gorgeous coops. (I maintain a Pinterest board of chicken keeping and coop inspiration, by the way, if you are into that kind of thing.)
A continuous supply of plentiful eggs requires a continuous supply of hens at laying age. For us non-commercial chicken-keepers, a good rule of thumb is that hens will lay pretty consistently (with periods off for molting, reduced day length and broodiness) from about 6 months old until about 3 years old. Although you will hear a lot of anecdotes about individual hens that keep pumping out eggs until they are 5 or 6 years old, the general consensus is that three years old is usually the beginning of the end for consistent egg laying.
Call it Henopause.
A well-kept backyard hen, protected from hawks, raccoons and Fido, can easily live to be 8 or 10 years old, and ages of twice that are not unheard of.
Bear with me here as I do some Urban Homesteader math. One layer hen eats about 1.5 pounds of layer feed per week. (Pastured birds will eat less purchased feed – yet another good reason to buy this book and study it before you design your coop and run.)
If a chicken starts laying at 6 months old (this is a bit later than average but it makes my numbers easy) and has essentially stopped laying by 4 years old, and lives naturally to be 8, a backyard chicken keeper is looking at 3.5 years of egg production time, and 4.5 years of Pets Without Benefits time. That’d be 351 pounds of feed going to a hen that isn’t making eggs!
Current, local prices for the layer rations I feed my hens is $28 per 40 pound bag, or $.70 a pound. Admittedly, this is a bit spendy, but I get the locally produced, happy-hippie, GMO-free feed from the lovely folks at Scratch & Peck. At those prices, it costs $245.70 to maintain a hen into theoretical old age and natural demise while you aren’t getting any eggs.
Which means those half-dozen cute peeping balls of fluff you take home from the feed store in spring could cost you $1474 during the time when they are not giving you eggs. And of course I’m not including the cost of bedding, a fractional share of the coop, potential vet bills, etc.
Meanwhile, if you live in a city or suburb, you have an even bigger problem: your now non-laying hens are taking up your legal urban chicken quota which could be filled with younger, laying hens, and you are stuck. You can’t just keep adding to your flock indefinitely when you live on 1/12th of an acre in Seattle. So now you are a Backyard Chicken Keeper without any Backyard Eggs.
If your hens are pure pets, this is all totally fine. These are very reasonable amounts of money to spend on a pet, and if you are not resentful in the least at having to buy both chicken feed and grocery store or farmer’s market eggs, then Chickens As Pets is a wonderful path to take.
There is another option, of course. This is the option you won’t tend to run into on Pinterest. It’s not the solution of a soft heart so much as a calculating head.
You can make the decision to cull your birds when they are past prime lay. This is what all commercial egg operations do, and what “real” (as opposed to “urban”) farmers do, and what everyone who makes a living and not just a hobby from animal husbandry does.
Culled laying hens aren’t good for roasting or frying but they make unbeatable stock and stewing birds.
So basically those are your two choices: you continue to pay and care for chickens that barely give you eggs or you cowboy up and you deal with the slaughter of no longer profitable hens.
Back to my friend who really, really wants chickens.
Could she kill her chickens?
Oh no. Absolutely not.
We both agree, she doesn’t have that in her. Fine, I’ve no problem with that, and I’m glad she knows herself.
Does she want to pay for chickens even if she gets no eggs?
Well, not really.
Fine, I wouldn’t either – I totally understand.
I told her quite bluntly (as is my way) that she should not get chickens.
Can I give them to a chicken sanctuary when they get too old to lay? Some place that has a no kill policy?
No. No. You cannot do that.
She can’t, and no one reading this can. You know why? Personal responsibility. Your chickens, your adoption, your decision, your responsibility to see it through to the end. You do not get to embrace the idea of a more intimate relationship with your food chain and then make that food chain – the food chain you specifically set up – someone else’s problem when shit gets real.
There is a local urban farming message board that is filled – filled – with people trying to give away their three year old chicken to a “good home.” Are you kidding me? You own the chicken. Your home is a good home. And once it’s not, your soup pot is a good soup pot. I once joked to a good friend that I could stock my freezer for the entire year off no-longer-laying hens being given away free “to a good home.”
This pisses me off, as you can probably tell. There is absolutely nothing ethically superior – and quite a bit that is ethically dubious, if you ask me – about enjoying the benefits of a young laying hen and then turning over the care or slaughter of that hen to someone else once it stops laying.
That is not how animal husbandry works and it’s not how pet ownership works, and those are your two choices. I don’t care which path you take with your chickens, but pick one. Playing Little Suzy Farm Girl until it’s time to get the axe and then deciding you aren’t up for chicken ownership just doesn’t fly with me.
Normally I am a Rah-Rah Cheerleader for this quirky way of life, and I think any fair assessment would deem me particularly encouraging to beginners. But a chicken is not a seed packet, it’s an animal and a responsibility. If you can’t cull your own birds or can’t provide for them all the way into their Chicken Social Security, then please, do not get chickens.208
This. So much this. Though I laughed at vet bills for chickens. A good hefty stick and a knife is the only vet my visibly sick bird will have. An injury is different- you’ll get treated for it here at the house. I’ve got a decent stock of avian medication and if it’s something I haven’t run into, I’ll ring my vet to see what their opinion is on it. But as the years go on, the less I haven’t run into. And the more I can look at a chicken and judge if it’s got a decent probability or not.
As I type this, I have two pekin ducks that didn’t stand up well against my LGD pup’s puppy tendancies that are in hospital care. One has a hole all the way to a bone due to chickens helping him out, but he’s lively and eating well and the wound was an easy clean up and is (at the moment) cleanly healing. Should either of these birds take a turn south, I’m not taking them 35 miles to the nearest bird vet. I’m taking them out of the hospital crate, telling them they were a good bird and playing Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland.
It sucked when I had a chick that slid under my foot just as I stepped down. I broke it’s neck to save it the agony of the next ten minutes. It sucked yesterday when I culled nearly 40 quail and 6 chickens- but that was mostly because I was so damn tired I could barely stand up straight after six and a half hours of gore.
I didn’t have a problem doing it. My birds have insanely happy lives. What you got at Burger King didn’t. What you get at the grocery store very likely didn’t either. You got no problem eating that? Nut up and kill Matilda when she’s stopped giving you eggs.
Unless, as this says, you’re keeping them as pets. Whatever, people keep all kinds of pets and that’s cool if you want chickens as pets. But if you’re the idiots flooding humane societies and “sanctuaries” and such with 8 year old chickens that are likely to have a heart attack due to the stress, don’t think you’re doing them any favors. You’re not.
Raising guinea can be an adventure. Watching them interact and do their bird stuff is quite a riot. Their eggs are pretty good but I really enjoy their pest removal the most. I had an entire flock of guineas a couple years ago and they were doing really well until a pair of great horned owls found their roosting spot. Wiped them all out in less than a week… I couldn’t believe it. P.S. I found a really neat new website that helps local farmers and homesteaders sell their products to the community. Anyone heard of FIFY? (Farm It For You)
Donna Marie says
Having only two choices as suggested in the article is very binary patriarchal stuff. Chickens are great for a backyard ecosystem (providing manure, eating scraps, etc), chickens are not a commodity to be only valued in dollar terms – they are a sentient being that we have the gift of eggs from and in return I am happy to gift them a life beyond egg laying days.
The fact that using chickens as natural pest control apparently never occurred to anyone here. Reading through all the comments and such.
I agree with the author yes and many of the comments here but not a single one mentioned this wonderful aspect of owning backyard chickens. (This does not apply to apartment owners. Unless you have a cockroach problem then it’s time to break out the chicken diapers and let them roam the building?)
Since I got chickens I have never had spiders or earwigs get into my house. I got rid of my flock because it got a little overwhelming and then came the influx of black widows. This year we got 6 new girls. Light Brahma’s.
Archer, Lana, Cheryl (might be Daryl), Ray, Kreiger, and Pam.
Chickens are EXCELLENT pest control. Even past their prime as egg layers. Something to keep in mind
Mike Franklin says
I completely disagree. Get all the birds you want. Do what ever you desire with them.
Mike Franklin says
I think you have it all wrong. I say get all the birds you want and do what ever you desire with them.
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John MacAulay says
Wow, I was actually surprised when I read this.
From a farm brought up common sense person that just happened to be looking for chicken coop ideas, (in a different life away from the farm) your advice makes perfect sense.
Its impossible to keep laying hens beyond they’re productive cycle. Otherwise , they’re pets.
A. Conyers says
You have thought about the cost of keeping chickens after the egg laying has stopped. But the joy of having them around and the amount of stress they can relieve in this busy, stressful society is priceless. Why shouldn’t your friend have chickens? We all have tv, computers, and the list could go on. Well, there is no comparison to enjoying time well spent watching the chickens scratch around and the funny little things they do.
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I mean to me it’s weird that you would stop caring about the chickens just because they didn’t lay eggs. It’s not like they cost a fortune to feed and you’ve already had them around for so long. Like just chill and be happy you have these beautiful birds with you
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Hi II live on a small holding in Skeerpoort, and would like to get some hens
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Way too late, I met my savvy neighbor who said to me (AFTER I’d acquired homeless chickens in the Colorado 2013 floods): People like you should never have chickens.
Yup. He was right. Killing these layers who don’t lay anymore just wasn’t an option. I started with 7, lost 6 (predators, one illness), got 2 new hens from my neighbor (bear ate one), and now have two, one of the original 7 and one of the neighbor’s. One’s laying. One’s too old.
Now I have a chicken pet.
Jim’s always said our eggs are about $50 each.
We live in a city limits. So we are not permitted by law to butcher our chickens on our property and it’s for that reason I’ll be taking my chickens after laying ceases to a person that can process them. I have several friends that are upset that I will be doing that but I understand that it is my responsibility to complete what I started. I have a limited amount of space and I would like to continue to have laying hens, but if I want producing hens, then I must cull the older non producing hens. It will be difficult, but I WILL deal with it. Thanks for the honesty and the call it like you see it attitude! And I’m sure a wake up call to many.
Wow. I’ve never heard so many back-woods, heartless comments about dogs in my life. The dogs did not create these situations; irresponsible humans did. If you gun-ho yahoos are all so brave, why not go out and shoot a few of them? Oh, sorry – unlike the puppies, they can actually fight back. There’s a nice warm spot in hell for all you freaks, so shoot away.
There is nothing wrong with educating people about the responsibilities, cost, and requirements of raising chickens. Especially if it is not common knowledge out there that they don’t lay for long. But there is something very wrong with the tone of this article. The writer makes it sound as if their neighbor is an idiotic child (and maybe they are) but many chicken owners and wannabe chicken owners are not. I have absolutely no plan to get rid of, cull, or allow my chickens to be “naturally” killed (if I can avoid it). I also will continue to care for my backyard chickens no differently than I would my cats or dog. I knew what I was taking on before due to the internet and basic INFORMATIVE articles and easy google researching – instead of articles that read like the writer is a know-it-all. You can inform a reader of everything written in this article without sounding pissed-off. For example the line…if you aren’t at all resentful of buying chicken feed AND grocery store eggs… Like someone who is is some kind of idiot? Like someone who knows that chickens live long and stop laying early couldn’t put that together themself???
I agree with most of what this writer it saying, but the way it is written and the patronizing tone in which it is written offends and irritates me. Give someone a little info if you want – but let people decide for themselves what they want to do without snapping at them. Like your neighbor, I initially did not want chickens either after I read (again, quickly and easily googled) how long they live. However, after I bit the bullet, educated myself a little more about their care, began to enjoy tending my backyard chickens, and got to know each one of their quirky personalities, caring for them has become something I love and have taken on for the long-haul. Learning about backyard chickens was a process, not something my know-it-all neighbor decided for me in one short irritating conversation.
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Wizard nipples says
Hello, while your article is interesting, haha just kidding its boring as hell and i dont know how I made it all the way through. So.. to the point, chickens are not hard or expensive to care for. I have 4. They dont have a coop they roam around freely and i live in the middle of the city. Those chickens are cooped up in tiny cages at feed stores and are often killed. Your article encourages this. Thanks for your time in reading this, now go eat some cake you fat face.
I don’t understand, chicken is so good as a kid, I would break their necks and brink them into my mother salivating like a little wolf.
Don’t forget to factor in the years of chicken-shit coated bedding that goes really well around hungry summer vegetables. This bedding can be collected and stored in plastic garbage bins, and as long as it stays dry it will be good for years.
Heritage breeds do lay much longer than the 3 years you mention. I have Welsummers that have laid through year 6.
Now, if there were a butcher that would kill and process my elderly chickens I would gladly pay him/her to do this bit. I paid someone to provide me the hatched and sexed chick in the first place. Where is this butcher, I’m looking for him/her in Seattle!
Shelley S says
For those looking for places which process chickens. First, I’d check to find if there are any Amish or Mennonite communities nearby. They frequently offer processing for a very reasonable price. If not, try calling around to find those who process home-raised beef, or hunting proceeds like venison.
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Spot on Erica! Thank you for your soap box – I’m sharing your article with a few ‘wanters’. (I’ve also invited them over when it’s time to cull my neighbors’ …er…pets for the pot. Thus far – no takers.)
It’s always a lovely idea for a wee bit of time to pretend to ‘get back to the farmer roots’ – then reality hits and you have a 200 lb pot belly pig you are trying to re-home… save everyone & the animals the stress & confusion…donate the money to a farm animal rescue instead of getting your own!
Sharon Kellington says
I would take a non-laying hen to befriend my non-saying hen of about 8 years old and give your hen a good forever home. My German Shepherd is her only friend and they are pals, but I plan on getting him a pal too so I would like Zolly to find her own friend if you have such a nice hen you would give or sell me I would gladly take her and she could just hang out all day with Zolly. . 541-779–3830.