“Hentirement”

When aquiring a flock of backyard chickens most people are excited about the farm fresh eggs they will be collecting from their own girls. Not much thought is given to what to do after they no longer lay regularly. Laying hens being associated only with egg laying has been drilling into our conscious by the factory farm egg producers.

The hens for production spend their entire life in small cages then are slaughtered between 18 months and 2 years of age because they are deemed unproductive at that point. It has become common knowledge that after the age of 2 hens no longer lay eggs and are worthless. I am here to challenge this presumption.

In this post I intend to prove that hens are worth much even beyond their laying years. A hen does not loose her wroth just because she no longer lays eggs regularly, I say “regularly” for a reason; I will expand upon this. But first let’s discuss the truth about laying hens.

It is of popular opinion that hens will only lay for 2 years. After this point they no longer lay eggs and are nothing more than chicken stock in terms of value. This is not true. The truth is that once a hen starts to lay eggs, she will lay dependably for the first two years. After that point, she still lays but maybe not to the tune of one egg a day as she did in her earlier years. A hen will lay eggs for as long as she lives.

Every hen is born with approximately 1000 yolk cells. These are all the potential eggs that she will lay during her entire life. The first two years of her life she will lay at the most “regular” intervals of her laying years. A productive laying breed such as the Australorp, Orphington or Rhode Island Red will lay about 3-5 eggs a week. That is about 156 to 260 eggs a year. So for the first 2 years of her life she will have laid approximately anywhere from 315 to 520 eggs. Assuming that she is born with 1000 yolk cells (as most laying breeds are), this mean she has only layed a little more than half of her total egg potential.

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Now, just because she is over the age of 2 does not mean that she will not lay anymore eggs. She will, she may lay 2-4 eggs a week instead of her initial interval of 3-5 eggs a week. She keeps laying eggs but slows down a bit. As she ages, she will slow down even more. If she makes it to 5 years of age you might expect to get 1-3 eggs a week. As she progresses even further in age you can probably count on 1-2 eggs a week.

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I currently have 5 Buff Orphingtons who are 10 years old. The life expectancy of an average backyard chickens is anywhere between 5-7 years. If well cared for they can reach 10+ years. For a backyard hen to make it past the age of 7 defies most odds. To reach the mile mark of 10 years and beyond is rare. This past May, my 5 “Golden Girls” officially reached this 10 year milestone. Even at this age my 5 Buff Orphington girls still lay. During the summer when bugs and other delectables are at the most abundant, I can  count on about 2-3 eggs a day from my 5 senior ladies. Some will lay that day, others will not. But as a general rule, during the time of the year when the days are long, warm and bugs are plenty, they will lay well. When fall arrives, the days shorten and the weather cools off. During this cooler part of the year they typically slow down to maybe 1 egg a day from the 5. During the coldest part of winter they will cease laying altogether, their bodies are using egg laying resources to keep warm in the bitter weather. This is just not observed by older hens but all hens. However, in the spring as the days warm again and the sun returns to our sky, they will pick back up the pace to 2-3 eggs a day.

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You see, even at their advanced age, they still lay eggs. The assumption that a hen will only lay for the first 2 years of her life is unfounded. She will lay eggs till the day she dies.

So really the question is not that they stop laying eggs but what to do after laying hens pass their peak laying performance. In the factory farm setting, after 2 years of age, the hens are sent to slaughter and a new batch is brought in. Although these girls still have plenty of laying years ahead of them, they are nonetheless considered expired and slaughtered. These ladies barley begun their lives when it was abruptly halted. For the backyard chicken keeper this is not the normal proceedings. We tend to hang on to our ladies well beyond two years of age.

The question then becomes, what to do with our hens that are so advanced in age that they no longer lay eggs. My 5 “Golden Girls” are not far from this point. I expect next year I will have collected the last egg from my Buff Orphington ladies. At this point I will consider them officially in “Hentirement”. Hentirement is the time in a hens life where she has officially stopped laying but still has much to offer beyond eggs.

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Here on The Kuntry Klucker Farm all may ladies and gents will live out their natural lives under the loving care of their keepers. Just because a hen stops laying eggs does not mean that she is worthless. Hens can contribute in many ways beyond the humble egg.

So, what can a hen who has reached “hentirement” offer you may ask. She can produce in many ways. For example, I have found that my older hens make excellent mothers. Since they no longer have to use their energy for laying eggs they focus their efforts elsewhere. I have found that when I bring a new batch of chicks to the backyard, my older ladies are the first to show them the ropes. Taking them to all the hot spots around the yard such as the dust bathing holes, water coolers, good sun bathing location, the feed buffet, introducing them to the best roosters and more. My older ladies have even adopted a few chicks and raised them for me. To read this story click here. 

Older hens although no longer laying still offer all the benefits of having chickens such as  providing compost for the gardens, eating the bugs on garden plants, tilling the soil and ridding the yard of all available weeds.

Additionally, I find that my older girls make the best lap chickens. No longer distracted by the needs of egg laying they become better companions. Instead of focusing on the necessities that go with egg laying they have more time to spend and bond with their keeper. Thus, my older ladies are the lap chickens of the flock. Not only is it adorable to be claimed by the hen, the younger generations see this and model their behavior. Thus my subsequent broods are friendlier and more personable towards their keepers.

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Finally, an older hen who has seen and lived through it all are the zen masters of the flock. No longer spring chickens learning the ropes of  life, they are the pros of what it means to be a chicken. My older girls are the calmest members of the flock, nothing surprises them. They know the dangers of life and help others avoid them, they know and roll with the changing seasons and weather patterns. They are the wisdom barring members of the flock.

Above all, they deserve all the honor and respect that is due them. They nourished me with their life during their laying years, it is my turn to nourish them during their twilight years. My older girls are the gems of my flock. They shine bright as they have been polished by the trials of life. For a backyard chicken to make it to the ripe old age of 10 is a feat that defies all the odds. I don’t know how much time they have left but I do know this, they will live the rest of their life grazing on bugs and bathing in the sun glistening like the gems they are.

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I hope you have enjoyed this post and possibly even helped you decide what to do after your ladies no longer lay eggs. It’s a personal decision for each and every chicken keeper. For me, allowing my ladies to live out their post laying years in “hentirement” is the decision I have made for my ladies.

The girls and I want to wish everyone a Merry Kluckmas and an egg-cellant new year!

Thanks for reading, till next time keep on crowing!

~ The Kuntry Klucker Crew ~

 

 

Oyster Shells for your Ladies.

This post is dedicated to the care and wellbeing of backyard laying hens. In the post I will answer the following questions. What are oysters shells? What does it do for your hens? and Why are they important?

But before we get into the specifics of oyster shells, I first need to discuss some of the basics of what your hens body goes though when she lays an egg.

One of the most common questions I get is, “do I need to have a rooster for hens to lay eggs?” The answer to that is No. Your hens will lay eggs in the absence of a rooster. Now if you want to procreate your flock and hatch chicks on your farm then, for that you will need a rooster. But that’s a post for another time. For now were are just going to talk about how you hen lays eggs.

Each egg that your hen lays takes about 24-26 hours to complete. There are 4 stages in the egg laying process that I will cover.

Stage 1: The Yolk Releases

A hen is born with all the egg yolk cells that she will lay throughout her life. Each yolk is contained within its own follicle. When the yolk is released from the follicle it travels from the ovary to the oviduct commonly known as the reproductive track. This entire journey this far only takes about 15 minutes.

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Stage 2: The White forms

The formation of the egg whites takes your hen 4+ hours to complete. As the yolk leaves the ovary and travels through the oviduct it can be fertilized by a rooster. An unfertilized egg is known as a blastodisc, a fertilized egg is known as a blastoderm. If you do not have any roosters the blastodisc will continue its progress in his absence. The yolk (know known as a blastodisc or blastoderm) travels through the magnum and the isthmus sections of the oviduct. This is where most of the albumen (egg white) forms around the yolk, a thin outer shell membrane holds everything loosely together. When you break open an egg you will notice white spiral things connected to the yolk.  These spindles are called chalaza and attach the yolk to the shell. At this point the blastodisc resembles an egg missing the outer shell.

Stage 3: The Eggshell

The blastodisc (egg) gains the shell in the uterus via a shell gland. The shell takes about 20 hours to form and another hour or more for the pigment or color to be applied to the outer shell. It is this phase of egg development which requires calcium from your hens body. If she does not have access to calcium through her feed or supplemented in oyster shells, her body takes this critical nutrition from her bones. Over time, the depletion of calcium from the hens body weakens her bones leading to injury. This is why making oyster shells available to you hens is very important. Most feeds come “enriched” with oyster shells but this does not meet all the calcium requirements needed by your laying hens.

State 4: The Nest Box

Your hens lay eggs through their cloaca (the vent). Eggs exit through the same vent used for everything a chicken excretes. Tissues of the uterus expands with the egg until the entire egg passes through the vent. During the act of laying the egg a bloom layer is applied to the shell to protect the egg  and keep it clean. This bloom keeps bacteria from entering the egg which can spoil the yolk and contents inside the egg. It is for this reason that we refrigerate eggs after washing them. Once the bloom is washed off the egg the egg will begin spoiling. The outer layer of protection is removed which no long protects the egg from bacteria.

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Unwashed eggs can remain at room temperature for several weeks before they begin to break down. This is why eggs bought at the grocery store are sold in the refrigerated sections and kept cold. Farm fresh eggs only need to be washed prior to use. Otherwise, your farm fresh eggs can be stored at room temperature only needing refrigeration if you will not be able to use them for a long while.

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Now that you have a better understanding about you hens body and the process of laying eggs, let’s discuss and answer some common questions about oyster shells.

What are Oyster Shells?

Oyster shells are pretty much what they sound like, ground up oyster shells. They are an excellent source of calcium and a much needed supplement for your hens. Most chicken feed contains some oyster shell in the feed, but it is quickly absorbed by your hens and does not last long enough for them to gain the full benefit. Don’t get me wrong its better than nothing but your hens are not really getting what they need for their daily calcium requirements. Your hens require a long release calcium source which is not in all chicken feed brands.

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The only feed brand that I know which contains a long release oyster shell in the feed is Purina Poultry Feed. Purina can be found at Tractor Supply and many other farm and feed stores. If you cannot find Purina don’t panic. You can still use the feed that you currently purchase just make oyster shells available to your girls in addition to their feed.

I have found that a small dish attached to the side of their pen filled with oyster shell does the trick. You don’t need to worry about them going through it like scratch or even  feed. A hen will only consume what she needs. Her body will tell her when she needs extra calcium and how much she needs to lay her eggs. Each hens body is different, some may consume more than others. Don’t worry is if one hens consumes a lot while another hen consumes very little, their bodies know what their suppliment needs are.

What do Oyster Shells do for your hens?

Oyster Shells supply your girls with the calcium that they need to form strong egg shells. Most chicken feed brands have some oyster shell in the feed but not enough. Since hens do the majority of the hard work of making eggs shells at night, they need a supplement that will provide calcium during this time. The Oyster Shell that is contained in the feed is only accessible to the hen while she is eating. Oyster Shells that are supplied in addition to the feed are larger pieces. Sitting in her crop during the night they slowly grind down supplying the hen with calcium as she sleeps. it is in this way that your hens are able to make strong egg shells as they sleep, reducing the stress on her body and deleting her calcium resources.

Why are Oyster Shells important?

Oyster shells are important because they provide a calcium source that is required to make egg shells. If a hen does not have adequate calcium resources for her body to produce the egg shell it will weaken her bone structure. An egg shell is made almost entirely of calcium. In the absence of a calcium source from her food the hens body will take the needed calcium from her bones. Over time this can lead to bone issues with hens who are not getting enough calcium, in particular the leg bones. Often time the weakened bones lead to painful injury or even breaking the bones during normal activity. For the optimal health of your hens providing Oyster Shells aids in their overall health and longevity.

After providing supplemental calcium to you girls you will notice that the eggs she lays will be harder and have firmer shells. This is also  beneficial to your hens in that they are less likely to break during the process of laying. This is another risk to your hen. If an egg breaks inside a hen during the process of laying a soft shelled egg it can cause internal injury. Broken egg shells are sharp and can cut the delicate skin of her tract and vent. A broken shell during laying can often lead to infection and much pain and discomfort. Recovery is not always possible depending on where and how the egg broke inside of her. To prevent this and other unwanted issues with egg laying simply supply oyster shells to your laying hens.

I hope that you have found this post helpful. Keeping backyard chickens is a fun and  rewarding endeavor. Like us they need a little help in supplementing their diet. They can’t get everything they need from their feed but that’s an easy fix. Taking proper dietary care of your girls will lend to a long and happy life for your special ladies.

If you have any question please feel free to post them in the comments, that’s what I am here for.

Till next time, thanks for reading!

~ The Kuntry Klucker Crew ~