Now that my professional work has gotten caught up, I've been turning my attention to getting long-postponed farm projects caught up as well.
My number one priority: the old laying hens.
We color-code our breeds, so it's easier to tell how old the birds are. Once hens are mature, it's nearly impossible to distinguish a yearling from a three year old. Hens have a productive laying life of about two years, and drop off dramatically in the third year. Our approach is to raise a batch of one breed in the spring of Year 1, which will start laying in the fall of that year. When then start a different colored breed in the spring of Year 2. In Year 3, we either try another new breed or go back to what we had in Year 1. Either way, in the fall of Year 3, we butcher the hens from Year 1.
If we repeat the Year 1 breed in Year 3, as we did this time with Barred Rocks, we must race against the clock to butcher the old hens before they become indistinguishable from the new pullets. The key features are the size of the comb and wattle on their heads. Also, younger birds tend to have yellow feet but older birds' feet tend to get white with age. And once you pick up an older hen, it's often obvious from the weight and fattiness of the belly that this bird has been around for awhile.
My work was so busy in recent months, I put the butchering off way too long. The pullets' combs are starting to grow out, and I'm worrying that I may kill some of them by mistake. With the nice weather yesterday, I knew I had to get caught up. Homeschooled Farm Girl helped me chase down and catch six older hens, and then assisted me as we butchered them. Five are destined for the freezer, and we started a stock pot immediately with the sixth. Overnight, it turned into some of the richest and most delicious chicken soup imaginable. I had some for lunch today, and it'll be the centerpiece of tomorrow's dinner.
This morning, I managed to pluck an additional four hens off their roosts. Guess how I'm going to be spending my sunny Wednesday afternoon?
There may be a few more older hens to butcher after today, but I'll need to wait until tonight (when they again come home to roost) to get a good look. In the meatime, we appreciate all the wonderful eggs our Barred Rocks gave us. And we'll appreciate the chicken soup just as much.