When the hens stop laying

Published 5:51 pm Tuesday, August 13, 2019

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What do you do with chickens when they stop laying?

You eat ‘em.

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My niece, visiting from central Washington State where she, her husband and two sons live, knew doggone well that was going to be the answer when she asked the question. But ask it she did.

She won’t eat them, of course. Her young sons would probably find a bloody chopping block and hatchet — to say nothing of a headless chicken flopping around on the ground — a bit disturbing. She has neighbors who are probably not so squeamish about where their next meal will come from, and their tables are where her aging chickens will probably end up.

A baking hen is actually a delicious meal. We didn’t let them age so long that they became scrawny, but when their useful life of laying eggs had ended, they were destined for the Sunday dinner table. There are few things more inviting than walking in the back door of a farmhouse after church and smelling a baking hen that has been browning in the oven while you were singing hymns.

We had that and many other discussions last week as Amy and Jeremy Peck visited. We talked of hog killings, and butchering, and how hams, shoulders and bacon were cured.

Amy is my sister’s daughter. Her mother died when she was quite young and we had quit farming as I knew it long before that, so she never got much of a feel for the life that her mother knew growing up. Whenever she visits, she wants to learn as much as she can of how her mother lived as a child. It’s a very understandable curiosity.

Today, the Pecks live in and enjoy a sort of semi-rural setting. They have a couple of horses and some chickens. Their sons, ages 9 and 5, are mucking stalls and helping with the chickens, but the family’s probably not going to begin slaughtering chickens or other livestock anytime soon.

The discussion of the chickens’ fate actually has been repeated around the country many times recently because, as people are attracted to the idea of having a little self-sufficiency by gathering eggs every day from some backyard chickens, they eventually must deal with the relatively short lifespan of chickens and Amy’s question inevitably arises.

Some animal control agencies, particularly in cities, have been inundated with chickens that people want to rid themselves of but don’t want to kill.

It’s not just chickens, of course. People increasingly don’t really want to know where all those hog trucks are going every day. Bacon doesn’t just magically appear, but society increasingly had just as soon not think of the path it takes.

I’m not so sure we’re better off insulating ourselves, or children and grandchildren, from the realities of animal husbandry. Our relatively newfound doting over animals doesn’t seem to have created a gentler world, as we saw clearly last week in El Paso and Dayton.

I’m not advocating chopping off chicken heads as an anecdote, but I am saying that the rural people who raised, cared for and ate their livestock didn’t seem terribly maladjusted to me. I don’t recall that society was creating a great number of mass murderers, for example, back then.

Could our children be developing traits that a good dose of real life might prevent? I have absolutely no idea, and I certainly have no answers.

All I know is, if the chicken stops laying, eat it.