I have two important tasks that I need to accomplish today: I need to make some peach pies, and I need to figure out which of my old hens are going to live, and which are going to die.
I’m looking forward to the pies. Not so much to the hen-culling decision.
It’s an anxious day or two that I spend every year about this time. A good share of my faithful old laying hens are going to go into the freezer, and a few will be privileged to live another year. (Sigh.)
If I had my ‘druthers and if money grew on trees . . . I’d have a chicken house with much different dimensions from the one that I have: it would be vast, with a high ceiling and several rooms. Big windows would let in lots of light, and mice would not be allowed inside, under no circumstances!
In this dream chicken mansion, there would be many rooms: one room would serve as the nursery whenever there were babies or mamas with babies, and the main room would be fitted with so many nesting boxes that no hen would even consider laying eggs on the floor or under the perch. Also, there would be a room big enough for a nice supply of hay, straw, and plenty of feed.
As long as I’m dreaming . . . there’d be a hydrant inside the coop, and there’d be a big sliding barn door that would make the periodic and required cleaning out of the used bedding as effortless as it possibly can be. Every few months, a kindly farmer would drive up and give me a gift of several months’ worth of feed, just because he’s nice and he likes me (hey–I could make him pies–peach pies!!), and I’d keep just as many chickens as I like, regardless of whether they are producing eggs or not.
That’s the dream. The reality is that we built our own little coop many years ago, when we first moved out onto our acreage, when my dreams were much, much smaller. All I hoped for at that time (having just moved to the country from town, where chickens weren’t allowed at all) was a small coop big enough for a few hens.
That’s it. Incidentally, that’s all we could afford to build at the time, anyway, so my good husband and stalwart sons built for me a nice little concrete-floored coop with one main room, with a very small room designed to hold garden tools or whatnot, also. Good husband Bryan was careful to make sure it was sturdy, and well-insulated, with windows and a screen door. I’m thankful for it, still, though it is very small, and very difficult to clean out, due to the complicated (I won’t go into it now) door situation. But anyway. Still, I’m grateful.
As it is, the “tool room” quickly became the “nursery” where I could sequester new chicks or a broody hen wanting to sit on eggs, or even an ill or injured hen, when the need arose.
(If you’re planning to build a chicken coop, keep in mind that you’re going to need two rooms at times. You just are.)
But since Year One, I’ve always had too many hens for that space. Always. I try not to read the “suggested space requirements per hen” always mentioned in chicken books, because it only serves to make me feel guilty. My poor hens, bless them, have been crowded since Day One.
I’m not going to even tell you, Gentle Reader, right now how much space I have because it’s an embarrassingly small amount, but I will tell you about how many chickens I have in that small space: in the tiny nursery space, I have about 25 pullets (they only spend the nights there, it’s true, at least) and one broody mama sitting on 9 eggs. In the main part of the coop, crowd several roosters (at least most of them are little bantams), two guineas, one goose, and about thirty old hens.
That’s a lot of chicken (and other) flesh for such a small space. You’ll just have to take my word for it. At least they spill out of there the first thing in the morning and don’t go back in until the last thing in the evening, with an occasional foray inside to lay an egg, or take a nap.
That lengthy and possibly-unnecessary and probably-tedious introduction is to explain the problem of those thirty old hens. I’ve made a date in a couple of days to take my 15 Cornish Cross chickens (which are outside in a temporary shelter, as pictured in this post) and 20 to 25 of my old hens to the butcher. Butchering the old hens–which range in ages from one to three years old–is what causes me no little bit of anxiety and guilt each year, but it’s got to be done. I’m getting 8 or 9 eggs every day from those 30 hens, which (as you might guess) is not a great ratio. It could be worse, and it would be, if I let these old hens get any older.
Once this year’s pullets begin to lay eggs (in about a month) I’ll get approximately 25 or more eggs a day from those 30 pullets. I like that ratio much better. A typical hen lays an egg nearly every day for the first year, and then the number of eggs she lays go markedly downward.
So the hard thing for me to figure out every year, is which old hens are still laying eggs, and which are not. Some hens naturally are not as ambitious and will stop laying early, and some will continue to be productive layers through their second or even their third year. I really hate the idea of butchering a good layer, and I also loathe the idea of not butchering a hen who has decided to give up laying for good. Feed is expensive stuff these days.
Anybody with me on this?
So I’ve studied up on this matter through the years, and I’m come to this conclusion: if you really want to tell if your old hen is laying or not, her bottom will tell the tale. Now the following information (not to mention the photos!) are not for the squeamish, but I’m figuring that if you’ve read this far that you’re really interested in the subject matter, ergo, my mentioning the parts of a chicken’s bottom will not shock you. Are we ready to proceed? Yes? Okay, here goes.
First, there are other things to look for when you are wanting to cull non-productive hens, and I’ll list those things here, before we get to the bottom of the issue.
- Feathers. The feathers of a laying hen should be dirty, worn, and ragged looking, since those hens are concentrating their energy on producing eggs and not on preening and replacing their dirty feathers. They don’t spend much time in front of the mirror, per se. Makes sense to me! (I could think of a human parallel, if I wanted to go there.)
- Combs and wattles. A non-producing hen will have a scaly, pale, and shriveled comb and wattle, while a good layer will have waxy, full, bright red ones.
- Carriage. A good layer will be alert to her surroundings and not be listless and lazy. Her eyes will be bright and she should be relatively active (such as scratching in the litter, running around with her companions, etc.).
- Skin. Depending on when you check, and what breed of chicken you are looking at, a hen’s skin should be bleached, while non-layers will have dark-pigmented skin.
Those four signs are good indicators, but you’ll find that each one has its exceptions and oftentimes is vague or non-conclusive. That’s why I continue to insist that the bottom of the hen tells no lies.
The bottom of a hen that is in production (in other words, she’s laying eggs) is so different from the bottom of a hen who has decided to retire from egg production.
I spent a cozy hour in the chicken yard with my daughter Amalia the other day, showing her how to tell which hens were laying and which were not.
The drawing of the hen at the right shows a typical productive hen: she has a good looking comb and wattle, her vent (where the egg comes out, and also her droppings) is large and moist; her abdomen is large and soft, and the pubic bones are wide apart.
Now for comparisons’ sake, I started with one of my young pullets, because I knew for a fact that this young chicken hadn’t laid a single egg yet.
We’ll call her Pullet #1:
You can see, along with the usual rather startled and vacant expression on this pullet’s face, that her beak and the skin around her eye has lots of yellow coloration. Once she begins to lay eggs, it will quickly fade to white.
Her feet are also quite glossy, thick-skinned and yellow. This yellow coloration will quickly begin to fade when she begins to lay, and then will be replaced when she stops laying. Pretty cool, eh?
I ruffle her soft bottom fluff and find the vent, with some difficulty, I might add. It is very small (about the size of a dime), hidden, tight, and dry. She has never laid an egg, it’s pretty obvious.
Now I locate the pubic bones, on either side of the vent. They are so close together that I have my index finger on one pubic bone, and my third finger on the other. Bless her heart. Amalia murmurs sympathetically with the pullet, and apologizes to her that this picture will be on the World Wide Web within a few days.
We proceed to Hen #2:
You can see that the tip of her beak is faded and white. I suspect right away that she is a productive layer.
The bottom of her feet also indicate a productive hen: they are faded and a pale white.
You can’t tell it very well from this photo (my sweet daughter Amalia, who took these photos is just a bit squeamish about the bottoms of chickens–we’ll have to work on that) but this hen’s vent was large (nearly the size of a silver dollar) and moist.
I can get three of my fingers between the pubic bones! I’ve found a productive laying hen! Hooray! She also has a sweet, docile nature, and I’ll tag her to live another year. We bond.
To confirm my suspicions, I find that four of my fingers easily fit between the vent and the keel. She has a broad, large, soft bottom. (No human parallel here, either: is not my self-control admirable today?)
Okay, we’ll go to one more hen, and I’ll let you be the judge this time, Gentle Reader. She is the same breed as Hen #2, so they should be quite similar in build and coloration. This is a friendly quiz, and you’ll find the answer at the bottom of this post. So this is Hen #3:
First, we’ll look at the color of the feet. What do you think? Are they as bleached as the feet of the productive Hen #2? Or not? (Check the photo above.)
Here’s her vent, which is smaller than a quarter, and is dry, and tight–not as tight as the pullet’s, however. What do you say, Gentle Reader? Is she in production, or not?
My fingers are resting on the pubic bones. See how close together they are? I think you’ve probably come to the same conclusion that I have, but there’s one more test:
I can fit only two fingers between the vent and the keel. What do you think?
Okay, I’ll tell you. I chose this hen for comparisons’ sake because I knew for a fact that she hasn’t been laying all summer long. Instead, she has been broody and has been trying to sit on eggs for months. Once a hen goes broody (bless her, I know the feeling, I do) she loses interest in laying eggs and goes into a trance of sorts, sitting on anything or nothing, for weeks. So if you guessed that Hen #3 is not productive, then you’re a pretty sharp cookie, Gentle Reader, and you’ve been paying attention, also.
Now! I’ve got to get busy examining all of my hens, but I’m going to wait until the sun is sinking and they are all half-asleep on their perches for that vigorous exercise. Much easier when they aren’t darting away from me with shrieks of alarm. It may be a trick to get Amalia to help me again, though . . .
Of course if I make the peach pies, I’ll have a bribe to offer and maybe I’ll have more than one helper . . . but first . . . I think I’ll go wash my hands . . .
I’m participating in The Prairie Homestead’s cool Monday blog party, the Homestead Barn Hop today, so if you like to increase your knowledge of homesteading-related matters, hop right on over to that awesome website and fill your cup of knowledge!
Thanks for reading, Gentle Readers! See ya next time!
This post is now also joining in on the fun over at Frugally Sustainable’s Blog Hop, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways. Check it out, if you’d like more homesteading tips!
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