Before getting chickens, a lot of people wonder what kind of commitment they are making when they bring personal egg layers into their lives. In other words, how long do chickens live?
Since most chickens are in commercial egg production or meat production, their lives are unnaturally short. Modern meat chickens are processed at 6 to 8 weeks of age, while commercial laying hens are usually turned into pet food or processed chicken products between 1 and 2 years of age, depending upon the farm.
Feral chickens like those you see on the island of Kauai also tend to have unnaturally short lives due to predation. Mongoose and domestic dogs are probably the worst in Hawaii, but there are chicken predators everywhere.
How long do chickens live naturally?
If chickens have a low stress life in your backyard or farmyard, are safe from predators, and you don’t mind feeding them after their peak egg laying years, heritage chicken breeds can live for 10 years or even longer.
Modern egg laying hybrids, such as the production Leghorn or Isa Brown, tend to have much shorter lives because of the stress of laying so many eggs so fast. I know several people with those breeds who have had them drop dead during heat waves in the summer where temperatures go into the 90s. None of my heritage chickens has ever died during extremes of heat or cold.
The good news is that chickens tend to be very healthy. Check out our post on how to prevent the top five causes of chicken death.
I know several people who’ve made the decision not to turn their laying hens into soup, and they’ve told me that even in their senior years, they may occasionally lay an egg. So they don’t ever completely stop laying eggs. They just become more and more rare.
How long do chickens lay eggs?
This will vary depending upon several factors, including breed. Some breeds have been bred with an eye towards egg production, and they tend to lay more.
If you light your hen house during the winter to force them to lay 12 months a year, they will probably quit laying a little earlier than if you let them have a two- to three-month break when the days are shorter in winter.
However, high egg production can come at a price. Chickens that are forced to lay 12 months a year are more likely to have trouble with egg binding, which is something we have only seen once in 20 years with a flock of about 80 hens that have changed over multiple times. Modern hybrid egg layers also tend to have more trouble with egg binding, as well as extreme temperatures already mentioned.
Other than one adorable Sebright bantam hen that is 9 years old, the longest we have kept any of our layers was 5 years. That was in the early years of our farm. I initially could not bring myself to butcher hens because I felt like they deserved a nice retirement after giving us a few hundred eggs.
Then one day I did the math and realized that our eggs were currently costing us about $10 a dozen! Although I couldn’t do the deed myself, I did manage to load them up and drive them to a poultry processor who turned them all into shrink-wrapped stew hens.
I felt like a traitor, but once I tasted the amazingness of a stew hen, I got over it. I also felt better knowing that our hens had very happy lives out on pasture getting plenty of sunshine and fresh air and eating bugs and doing other things that chickens love to do.
It’s really sad that most Americans have never had a stew hen. It is truly the most delicious meat imaginable. Like fine wine and cheese, chickens get tastier with age. But you have to know how to cook it!
How do you cook a stew hen?
You can cut up the chicken or leave it whole, as long as it can be fully submerged in water in your pot. Then cook it low and slow for several hours. The older it is, the longer it will need to cook. Start checking it after two hours and then check every 30 minutes or so after that. When you can pull the meat from the bone with a fork, it’s done.
Cooking it longer is detrimental, which may be why some people don’t realize how amazing the meat is. Oddly enough, the meat starts to dry out and lose flavor when cooked too long. The other thing is that the rib bones start to fall off the spine, and that just creates a logistical nightmare in getting the meat separated from those tiny bones.
In addition to getting some really delicious meat for your casseroles and salads, you also have real chicken broth for other recipes.
What are alternatives to butchering old hens?
If you are only producing eggs for your own family, you may view your chickens more as pets than livestock. In that case, only start with three or four hens. When their egg production slows down to the point that you need more eggs, you can add two or three new hens to the flock. If you are only adding two or three hens every three years, you will have only 8 to 10 hens by 10 years, which would cost less to feed than a large pet dog, especially if they have access to pasture.
To keep your flock disease free, I don’t recommend adding adult chickens from another flock. One reason we have had no disease problems is because I keep a closed flock and only purchase day-old chicks from hatcheries that are certified disease free.
If, on the other hand, you want a business selling eggs, and you have 80 or more chickens like us, you will either be losing money after a few years, or you will have to charge far more than anyone would be willing to pay.