The final chapter in our Raising Chickens series is what to do when your chicken stops laying eggs or suffers from illness and pain. Yes, this is the cycle of life and an unfortunate responsibility that comes with the job of raising chickens.
If you are wondering how to get started with chickens, click here for the full 6-part Raising Chickens 101 series.
How Long Do Chickens Lay Eggs?
Egg laying is largely dependent on the length of the day, and most hens will stop laying when they receive fewer than 12 hours of daylight. When exactly this will happen depends on the chicken, though. Most of ours did go “off lay” as the days grew shorter and the seasons changed. They laid fewer and fewer eggs until, one day, they simply stopped. One or two continued to lay sporadically throughout the cold, dark days of winter, although most of those eggs froze and cracked before we got out to collect them. (In that case, we gave them to the dog, usually raw and right on the spot. He had a lovely, shiny coat, but produced sulfurous gas at inopportune moments.)
Chickens lay eggs most reliably in their first two to three years. After that, egg production will taper off.
How Long Do Chickens Live?
Chicken lifespans vary widely, with most hens generally living between 3 and 7 years. However, with ideal care, they may live even longer.
What to Do When Your Chicken Stops Laying Eggs
When They Stop Laying for the Winter:
You can extend the laying period for your hens by putting a light hooked to a timer in the henhouse. This will give the hens a couple of extra hours of artificial daylight, but the natural pattern for most hens is to stop laying in the winter.
As the hens go off lay, you have two approaches. One is to cook your chicken. Year-old hens usually aren’t tender enough to roast so we are talking about a lot of chicken stew. The more humane approach is to give them the winter off and wait. They’ll begin laying again in the spring.
(I’ve heard people say that they couldn’t keep chickens because “you have to kill them when they stop laying eggs.” Not true. We never killed a hen simply because she stopped laying.)
When You Have Old Hens:
We found that our old hens usually produce fewer eggs, but larger ones. In a production flock, this is a problem because consistency of supply and size is important. In the home flock, who cares? (Another advantage to old hens: They’re used to you and are less flighty and panicky.)
How to Humanely Dispose of a Chicken
Even if you decide to keep your laying hens until they die of old age, you will eventually have to dispose of a chicken. Maybe you’ll have a sick bird, an overaggressive rooster, a hen injured by a predator, or a chicken that eats eggs. Maybe that mixed batch of chicks will turn out to be half cockerels, and who needs six roosters for six hens? Trust me, the hens won’t thank you!
If a chicken’s life needs to end, we want to do it as painlessly as possible.
The simplest way to kill a chicken—so I’m told, as I’ve never done this and I’ve never seen it done—is to wring its neck. You have to be quick and forceful to avoid causing pain. We use the traditional chop: cutting the chicken’s throat. As far as I understand, these are the two main ways to kill a chicken. Shooting is also a possibility, but it’s noisy, certainly not painless, and probably also illegal in most places.
An axe and a block (a stump or upended round of firewood will do, as long as it’s stable) are probably the simplest method for people new to this age-old practice. There are a couple of ways to hypnotize or calm the chicken. One is to place the chicken breast-down on a flat surface while holding its legs. Wave a piece of chalk in front of the chicken’s beak until you have the bird’s attention, then draw a line straight out from the beak for 12 to 18 inches. The bird will focus on the line and not move or flap.
As most chopping blocks aren’t that long, you might want to use an alternate method. Lay the bird on its side, with one wing under it. Tap your finger in front once at the point of the beak (but not touching), then about four inches in front of the beak. Repeat alternating taps until the bird calms down and holds still.
If you’re worried about your aim, you can pound two long nails into the stump, far enough apart to span the chicken’s neck but close enough together to keep its head from slipping through. Lay the chicken on the block with its neck between the nails and apply enough tension to the legs to stretch the neck and keep the bird in place. Then use the axe. If you intend to eat the chicken, hold it up by the legs to let the blood drain. There will be flapping, but rest assured that the bird is dead and doesn’t feel any pain.
Have a pot of scalding (140° to 160°F) water ready. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can tell that the water is hot enough if you can see your face reflected in it. Dip the bird for 20 to 30 seconds. Afterwards, you can wipe the feathers off with your hand. Chop off the feet, then cut around the cloaca (anus—chickens use the same opening for excretion and egg-laying), being careful not to nick the intestines, and scoop the innards out with your hand. Rinse with cold water. If you can get all of this done in 20 minutes while the oven preheats, you can cook the bird immediately; otherwise, let it rest for 24 hours, until rigor mortis relaxes.
People who raise their own food know where it comes from, what’s gone into it, and how it’s been treated. Whether your chickens are ultimately intended for the table or killed simply to end pain or illness and then buried in the back forty, remember that this is your responsibility as a small farm owner. Doing it, and doing it well, means that you’re doing your best by your birds.
More of Raising Chickens 101
See more of our beginner’s guide to raising chickens: