The hen cycle

Dozens of eggs too small or too flawed to sell. Pullets start laying at 18-20 weeks, but their eggs are smaller than those of mature hens.

Farmers (and their customers) need a predictable steady supply of eggs, so hens are normally replaced on a regular basis. While chickens have an average lifespan of 7-8 years (one old biddy making it to a record 16),  egg-laying drops off drastically after their 2nd molting cycle:

After moulting, birds in their second year of egg production will produce 10-30 per cent less than in their first year of lay, as the lay rate is lower and the birds cease to lay earlier in the following autumn. Birds that have moulted twice and are laying for their third year produce only 70-80 per cent of their second year’s eggs (about 60 per cent of their first year’s production). ~ See this Australian site for more info.

Giant commercial producers maximize profit margins by controlling all aspects of their operations, from feed to egg to hen to meat by-products, and so on in a business model called vertical integration. Past-prime hens are usually turned into ‘nuggets’ and pet food. In the past, laying hens were managed in much smaller flocks, often as part of a diversified farming system that included other livestock and a variety of crops, in a kind of ‘horizontal integration’.

Two-day old hatchery chicks. This fall we’ll start hatching our own.

Animals provided manure that fed the soil that grew the crops that fed the animals so the animals could make more animals. A careful farmer could find just the right balance to allow enough surplus in different parts of the system to eat well and pay the bills, while caring for land and critters properly.

Barred Rock and Easter Egger pullets in the baby coop.

Here at Seven Trees, we’re exploring that path by planting feed and cover crops that benefit our critters while improving the land, by rotating critters and crops to minimize pest and disease build-up, and by breeding our own replacement hens. It takes a bit more planning and labor than mowing, spraying and applying store-bought amendments, but each season closes more input loops, bringing us closer to real sustainability in certain aspects of food production.

Three temporary grazing paddocks. The far right had hens on for a few weeks and is now reseeded and recovering. The middle has just been vacated. The foreground paddock, planted with winter peas, vetch & clover, is just now being grazed by our flock.

Which brings us to the part of the cycle where we replace our laying flock. We usually sell most of our older gals. They still have plenty of laying days left, just not at a rate up to our needs. Perfect for a backyard chicken-keeper who appreciates the larger, though less-frequent, eggs they lay. But the heaviest birds are saved out for the soup pot. Known as stewing hens, these gals are lighter, tougher, and infinitely more flavorful than the modern mushy mutants sold as broilers at the store.

A couple years of foraging and flapping around makes for strong muscles and connective tissues. Not what you want on the BBQ, but sublime when simmered slow & low for stock or soup. To make butchering easier, our hens are skinned instead of plucked. Since they don’t need to look pretty at the table, it saves a lot of hassle and doesn’t sacrifice any flavor to do it this way.

We used this simple and tasty recipe for basic chicken stock that we then combined with this canning recipe for soup.

Chicken stock, mid-simmer.

As usual, we improvised (added potatoes and zucchini) and upped quantities (2 gallons instead of 4 quarts), and ended up with about 20 pints of homegrown goodness that will be much-appreciated this winter.

And while we get ready for winter, the cycle continues. Spring chickens are on our list, crossing our new roo Chewie with our blue/green egg-layers to make a hybrid breed called the olive-egger. Depending on what breeds go into the cross, they lay olive green eggs, sometimes with dark brown speckles. We hope to have enough of a hatch to sell young hens and roosters as well as the eggs. Stay tuned!

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5 thoughts on “The hen cycle”

  1. What a conscientious way to produce food, with respect for both the animals and the land. When the animals and soil are healthy, the result is food that promotes wellness.

    1. Thanks for your kind words.
      Being forced to work within the constraints of full time jobs really helps keep us focused on what works. The funny thing is, at such a small scale, what works is often what is best for land, animals, and people.
      -J

  2. Ooh, I might be interested in some olive green egg layers if you have any chicks available one of these days. I am still researching how we are going to build our hen house and where to put it but this winter should provide more time to ponder and build some much needed out buildings on our new place. I look forward to hearing how this experiment works out for you.

    1. The goal is to have the first hatch laying around April, so we can see what colors we get before selling any as real olive-eggers. I’ve seen people call them Olivers, which is a cute breed name 🙂 The second batch of potential olivers wouldn’t be laying until late fall. We’ll take a rooster from the first batch and cross with our Maran & Welsummer pullets for another line of olive-eggs. It’s going to be hard to wait so long for the results!
      -J

  3. We went to the Whidbey island fair yesterday and enjoyed seeing lots of great looking chickens and eggs but no “Olivers” in the bunch. 😉 we also got a lead on someone who is raising Black Welsh sheep that we may be interested in getting next year after the chicken house is done and we are more settled.

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