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.11