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Hello and Welcome! I decided to start this blog for everyone out there who has an interest, or WANTS to be interested, in living a life that is a little more sustainable. I am still learning, and invite you to follow this blog to learn along with me. I will share what I have learned as we go, and hopefully you will pitch in and share what YOU are doing to live a little more off of what you can grow and DO from home. PLEASE BELIEVE ME when I say, if I can learn how to do this on a very small backyard plot in a city, then ANYONE can do this!!

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Lazy Layers-Is it OK to butcher older hens?

Some of our laying hens will be 3 years old this spring.  And they have gotten VERY lazy!  What I am referring to is their natural slow-down in egg production.  Actually, this is one of the major things that prospective chicken owners MUST (and usually don't) consider when making decisions about purchasing chickens. 

Hens will produce a great supply of eggs for you for the first 2 years or so, then they have a significant decline each year thereafter.  Each breed will have different productivity levels, so do your homework before choosing a breed.  I chose the type of chickens that we have for very specific purposes;  most of the breeds that I have were chosen because they are considered "dual purpose."  This means that they can be used as layers and/or as meat birds.  I wanted a bird that would give us good egg production and then provide food for our table when they slowed down.

Please understand that this is a VERY personal choice; I recognize that there are MANY that choose to love their low production hens until ripe old chicken ages.  I think that's wonderful too.  In fact, we have a couple in our flock that are NOT dual purpose hens that will retire with us as they age.  For our initial dual purpose flock, we chose Plymouth Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds and Golden Star (or Golden sex-link). 

Here are some common Dual-Purpose chicken  breeds and some of their characteristics:

Breed Avg. Weight (Hen) Egg Production Egg Size/Color
Australorp 6.5lbs Excellent (250+/yr) lays through winter and in heat of summer LG/Brown
Barred Rock (Plymouth, Buff, Partridge) 7.5lbs Good-Very Good (180-240 eggs/yr est.) Med/ Brown
Brahma (buff, Light) 9.5lbs Good (3-4/wk or 150+/yr, good winter production) Med/ Lt. Brown
Buff Orpington 8lbs Good-Very Good (200-280/yr est.) LG/ Brown
Delaware 6.5lbs Very Good (200-280 est.?) LG/ Brown
Jersey Giant 10lbs Good (180-260/yr estimate), long laying season LG-XL/ Brown
New Hampshire Red 6.5lbs Very Good (200-280 est.) LG/ Brown
Rhode Island Red 6.5lbs Excellent (200-280 est.) LG/ Brown
Salmon Faverolle 6.5lbs Good LG/ Cream to Lt. Brown
Sussex (Speckled, White-lays better) 7lbs Very Good-Excellent, Good Cold weather layer LG/ Lt. Brown
Turken (or 'Naked Neck") 6.5lbs Good Med-LG/ Lt. Brown
Wyandotte 6.5lbs Very Good (180-260 eggs/yr est., good cold weather layer) Med/ Brown
Breed Hardiness Broody Personality
Australorp Cold and Heat Y docile, quiet, tame
Barred Rock (Plymouth, Buff, Partridge) Very Cold Infrequent docile, friendly
Brahma (buff, Light) Heat and Cold Occasional calm, docile, makes good pet, feathered feet
Buff Orpington Very Cold Frequently docile, quiet, affectionate, good with kids
Delaware Very Heat and Cold Y superior meat characteristics,' calm, rapid growth, white feathers (less visible on skin after plucking/processing)
Jersey Giant Somewhat-Very Cold Y calm, easy going, long laying season
New Hampshire Red Heat and Cold Y usually calm, quick to 'put meat on'
Rhode Island Red Heat and Cold Infrequent docile (males can be aggressive)
Salmon Faverolle excellent disposition/great with kids, feathered shanks and 5 toes, 
Sussex (Speckled, White-lays better) Very Cold Y calm, curious, good foragers
Turken (or 'Naked Neck") Cold and Heat Occasional reduced number of feathers on body and none on neck, 
Wyandotte Very Cold Often docile, quick to 'put meat on'

Now, there are MANY more dual purpose chicken breeds out there and this chart is certainly not exhaustive.  I chose to represent these breeds as they were the most common as well as the most interesting to me.  I live in a suburban area and am limited to a handful of chickens, so things that I look for in a backyard chicken might be different than those with more space.  For example, I will not choose a breed that is NOISY.  While I am authorized by law to have chickens in my backyard, I also want to be a good steward of this concept and not irritate the crud out of my neighbors by having extremely talkative chickens.  Trust me, I LOVE sitting and listening to chicken noises, but I also know that not EVERYONE does (*sigh*).  Also, we do choose to use the hens for meat when they slow down in egg production, at about 2-3 years old.  SO, I want a bird that is 'heavier' and will provide a good family meal after she has blessed us with a couple years of delicious eggs.  Now some may completely disagree with this, but if you are a meat eater it is worth you while to come to terms with the fact that your food was once a living-breathing creature with a personality.  And please hear me when I say that I LOVE my chickens and processing is THE HARDEST thing to do as a homesteader (in my opinion).  HOWEVER, if you take only one thing from this post, please hear this:  I choose to do this because I can KNOW how our food was treated and KNOW that it was completely loved and spoiled while living a very good life in our backyard; AND I can KNOW without question that it was dispatched humanely when the time came.  If you do even a simple search on typical meat production in the US, you will (should) be VERY appalled, disgusted, and hopefully motivated to make different choices on your next trip to the store (buy from local farmers or Co-Ops)!  EVERYONE has the responsibility to make the choice of what they will eat....not many take the initiative to understand how it came to be their food and whether it was ethically and humanely raised and treated. 

Also to make note of is that as chickens age, their meat can tend to get a little tougher.  There are some great ways to cook this meat, such as Coq'A'Vin and Crock pots, to make the meat tender and flavorful.  Also, by planning ahead to cook the meat this way, you can skip the long process of plucking when processing and just completely skin the chicken, feathers and all.  The skin will not need to be retained since it will not be needed to retain moisture in the meat for a roasting process if using the aforementioned cooking process.  (There are many great resources available if you need instructions on how to process a chicken-that will not be covered in this post).

I hope that this helps if you are considering adding chickens to your backyard this year.  Deciding whether you will be using your birds as dual purpose is just ONE of the many considerations you must make when taking that leap.  And don't worry, a dual purpose bird will still make a great pet if you lose your gumption later on. 

Happy Homesteading!

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