The Downside of Backyard Poultry

Sunday, October 20, 2013


A few years ago, my friend and neighbor, fell in love with our newest batch of day old chicks. What’s not to love? They are tiny, soft, and fluffy and have the sweetest peeps of anything on the farm. Several days later she announced that she too was going to start her own backyard flock and raise her own eggs. She wanted me to come by and tell her all about raising chickens. She wanted to know about breeds, feeding, housing, how to collect eggs, clean them, and store them. She wanted to know how I sold my eggs, how much I charged for them and what I did with any I didn’t sell. As much as I tried, though, the one thing she didn’t want to know about was what to do when the hens were no longer laying.

The years have gone by, and the hens have now stopped laying. It happens, its part of the cycle. We have dealt with it for years. But, it is also the part that most backyard chicken raisers don’t want to know about, and that is what to do when the hens stop laying. By this point the hen(s) are part of the family. They are no longer a farm animal, they are a treasured pet. They follow the family all over the yard. The kids play with them and some even sleep with the dog or cat, they have become so intertwined in the family. The owners have neither the heart nor the will nor the know how to turn their beloved old hen into the best chicken soup ever. So, many of them are sent off to the local animal shelter. Our shelters are full of these aged cast offs.

But, my neighbor would have none of it. She felt sending her “girls” to the animal shelter was more cruel than my practice of butchering them. Instead, she drove to an animal rescue 45 miles away and donated her old hens. I tried to rationalize this in my mind. How to make sense of spending hours of my day driving, using gallons of gas that costs about $3.80 a gallon all in the name of a $5.00 hen. I couldn’t.

It was pride in her voice as she told me how SHE had allowed her girls to live out their lives on a peaceful farm rather than MY practice of butchering them for stews or soup. I couldn’t help but wonder how long the girls would actually live, how were they really being cared for and if they were in fact living a better life. I strained to imagine a world where all farm animals were sent away to live out their lives in some other place rather than being consumed. But, I could not. It made no sense. And, at the end of the day she did get rid of her unproductive hens, abandoning them to the care of someone else. I wondered how was this better for an animal proclaimed to be part of the family. Would she have done this to her dog or cats? Were they just as dispensable when they were old and unproductive? Probably not.

Nope, folks, I’m standing by my adage that if you’re going to raise chickens to have your own fresh eggs, learn how to butcher your old hens (and those roosters you thought were hens) for wonderful soups and stews, or pay to have them processed for you.

As I write this I can’t help but remember our own batch of hens butchered earlier this year. It is definitely not my favorite job. I don’t think any farmer would say butchering an animal they have raised is a pleasure. The only thing that keeps me raising and processing animals for my freezer is remembering how much we will enjoy them later on. But, to be perfectly honest I don’t butcher many older hens. The coyotes, raccoons and opossums usually get there first.

To Stew an Old Hen

The secret to a tender stewing hen is to cook her low and slow. I put about 1-1/2 cups of frozen chicken broth in a crockpot along with chopped garlic, onion, celery and carrot, mixed herbs like Herbs de Provence or Italian herbs, sea salt and coarse ground pepper. I set it on low and let it cook all day. Old hens have a lot of fat you’ll need skim it off when it’s finished cooking. You can keep the fat for use in dumplings for chicken and dumplings or in a pie crust for chicken pot pie, substituting the shortening with the fat. Stewed hens work best when used in casseroles, stews, pies or soups.

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