When to Cull Laying Hens
It can be difficult to decide when to cull your older laying hens. Some people like to keep their hens for a few years before culling them from the flock. Other people choose to cull at the onset of the hen’s first molt.
When laying hens are around 18 months old, they begin their first molt. This is the process where chickens lose a lot of their feathers, then grow new ones. Molting requires the consumption of extra calories and protein and may take 3 1/2 months or more. During this period, the hen will slow down production and then stop laying eggs. Many chicken keepers order replacement pullets 6 months or so ahead of time and cull the older hens when they start their first molt.
Second Molt Or Later
You may choose to feed your hens through the first molt in anticipation of the larger eggs they will produce in their second year. Keep in mind that although the older hen will lay larger eggs, those eggs will be fewer and farther between with each molt. They will continue to molt approximately once a year for the rest of their lives. Eventually your ‘senior hen’ will cease to produce any eggs. At that point they are pets, pest control, and fertilizer producers. If you wish to keep them for those reasons, be aware that they may live 8 or 10 years when well cared for.
The Economics of Culling
Raising your own eggs may only be less expensive than buying them if you can raise your own grain. You can reduce the overall cost of keeping chickens in a number of ways. Free ranging or pasturing will allow them to rustle up some of their own grub, as long as predators aren’t a problem. You can feed them table scraps and the leftovers from butchering. It also helps a great deal if you cull your hens at the start of their first molt.
The meat from each hen is enough for a meal or two. Smaller breeds like the White Leghorn make a nice pot of soup. Some of the dual purpose heritage breeds (such as Plymouth Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and Rhode Island Reds) should weigh in at 4 pounds or more when dressed. The carcass can be stewed, the meat picked from the bones for a casserole or enchiladas, and then a pot of soup can be made from the broth and small bits of meat. The bones and other bits can be put back in a stock pot with fresh water to make another pot of stock to can or freeze for later.
How to Tell if Your Hen is Laying Eggs
Perhaps you have a mixed flock of laying hens of different ages. It can be tricky to tell who is laying and who isn’t. Of course, the best way to tell is to put each hen into a separate coop or cage and watch to see how many eggs she produces for a few days. Being separated will stress her and she will stop laying after 5 or 6 days until she is returned to the flock and has had some time to adjust. You can also watch them all day or set up a special nesting box that allows the hens in, but not out. When you pull them out, you can clip a feather or mark them in some way so you can keep track.
You can also look at several physical signs that a hen is in laying condition. The signs include: hens with bright red combs and wattles; a yellow color to their skin and legs; a large, moist, pinkish vent; and a wider space between her hips (looking from the back end and feeling for the hip bones, check to see if they are approximately 3 fingers wide). A hen that shows these signs should be laying eggs.
Even after all of these methods are employed, it is quite possible that you’ll butcher a hen and find plenty of eggs of various sizes in her abdomen. I always feel bad when this happens, but sometimes you just have to get over it.
Do you butcher your old laying hens? Do you have a ‘foolproof’ method of telling which hens are laying?