Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chicken Culling 101

First of all, I want you all to understand that there will be no class fee for this presentation. The information presented herein is all good and true to the best of my knowledge, but alas and alack, we were not able to get adequate photographs to illustrate the finer points of chicken culling.

For one thing, we're culling at the wrong time of year. And the reason we're doing it now is that we failed to find time for it last fall when we should have, and now our chicken facilities are too crowded and . . . well, better late than never. (Do we get a couple of points for that anyway?)

The best time for culling is near the end of a laying season when a good layer will have been laying steadily through the spring and summer.

Let's say you hatch out some chicks or get some from a hatchery in early spring. Most breeds will start laying somewhere around 20 weeks of age and reach their optimum laying potential somewhere around the age of 34 weeks. So that means if you started your chicks in the spring of 2008, come December of 2008 or January of 2009, you would be in full egg production. So that fall (the fall of 2009 in our little example here) following a spring and summer cycle of heavy egg laying would be an excellent time to cull non-laying hens. (Which is when we should have done a complete culling of our flock, but didn't. I promise we'll do a better job this coming fall. Scout's honor.)

Why should it be done in the fall? Because after a lengthy period of consistent egg production is when the chicken's indicators of being a layer or non-layer will be most pronounced and identifiable. By doing it now with our hens, the signs are not as readily evident because they have all just come off a molt and resting period when no one has been producing eggs.

So what are the signs that should distinguish a layer from a non-layer? Very basically, the carriage of a good layer will be active and alert, a poor layer will be lazy and listless.

The eyes of a good layer will be bright and sparkling, encircled with a white ring.

A poor layer's eye will be dull and sunken, encircled with red pigment. (Even though this hen's comb and wattles looked good, she just seemed a little droopy and slow.)

Comb and wattles of a good layer will be large, bright red, plump and vibrant looking while a poor layer's will be small, pale and scaly. (We couldn't find a chicken with a less than healthy looking set of comb and wattles. I suppose that's good, but not very helpful for illustrative purposes.)

The plumage of a good layer will be worn, dry, dirty (producing eggs is apparently hard, time-consuming work leaving no time for personal grooming!) while a poor layer will look smooth, shiny, and clean. (All of our hens look pretty good right now because they've just come out of their molting rest period.)

Although there are some breeds that have naturally white beaks and legs, most are yellowish colored.

A good layer will be putting the yellow pigmentation into the egg yolk (that's right, who knew?) and so her beak and legs will be bleached out and look nearly white while the non-producing gals will keep the yellow color in their beaks and legs.

An exceptionally heavy bird, compared to others of her same breed, will indicate that all of her food intake has been going to produce body fat rather than eggs.

It is said that the most reliable indicators between good and poor layers are the pubic bones and the vent.

The pubic bones are two side by side kind of pointy bones located between the bottom of the keel (breast bone) and the vent. On a good layer the pubic bones should feel wide apart and flexible. The pubic bones should be at least two fingers' width apart, some books say even 3-4" apart. A poor layer's pubic bones will feel stiff and tight with less than two fingers' width between them.

The vent (more toward the tail and where the egg comes out of) should be large, oval shaped, moist and smooth and showing no yellow color on a good layer.

A poor layer's vent will be shrunken, puckered, dry and round with a yellowish color. (We couldn't find a good example of a vent with these characteristics, but still relegated some hens for the stew pot who are probably laying an egg only once in a while. We know their age makes them unable to be very productive anymore.)

Three books on raising chickens that we find useful are: "ABC of Poultry Raising, A Complete Guide for the Beginner or Expert" by J. H. Florea, "The Family Poultry Flock" edited by Lee Schwanz, and "A Guide to Raising Chickens" by Gail Damerow.

I hope some of the above is helpful. I'm dedicating this post to "Hopalong," our old rooster who was born with a deformed leg but still managed to live a long, happy, full life. He died of natural causes this morning. (Yes, Ruthie, you do get kinda attached to them.)

P.S. No chickens were harmed in the making of this post.


  1. Thanks for this information. I had Mr. H sit right down and read it. "Looks easy enough," he said. We'll see...

  2. Yeah, I've still got a bunch of lame duck roosters in my flock that have overstayed their welcome. This week is supposed to be warm, maybe I'll get the energy to do some culling of my own. Thanks for the great info!

  3. Culling is my least favorite thing. I actually get my chicks in December so when they come into lay it is the longest days of the year and I can get good production through the first summer. We'll butcher any of the "pullets" that turned out to be roosters that fall. Then I leave my hens alone until they are 2 and butcher them for the crockpot. It is a sad day, though, and it always seems so quiet afterwards. Like the whole farm is in shock. Just part of being a carnivore, I guess!

  4. Thanks for the info. We've been reading up on chickens since we got ours last year and it's amazing how much there still is to learn. We just got The Joy of Keeping Chickens by Jennifer Megyesi and there was some great info in there. And then your post with even more great stuff we didn't know!
    Our girls are just over a year now. We're thinking about getting new chicks in a year and then culling the old flock just before the chicks are ready to go into the coop...

  5. Thanks for an awesome post! There are so many things to learn that only come with experience, so it's great for you to provide that to go along with all the library book reading! Subscribed to my first poultry magazine finally and have been perusing the library shelves to see which ones look to be worth buying, but I am noticing there aren't many in the library in my area. I will check into the ones you recommended!

  6. That was really interesting! I had no idea there was so much science behind the culling. But, are you sure no chickens were harmed? I'd feel harmed if you were showing off my "vent" that way!!! ;)

  7. A question from a city girl with no idea about raising chickens: how long would a chicken live if not culled? Would they ever naturally get back into the laying cycle, after a period of rest? Or would it just take too long to make it economically feasible? Or disruptive to the other "productive" chickens?

    (sorry, that was several questions!)

  8. Wow. Never knew any of that. Thanks!

  9. Hi, JJ - No doubt about it, you learn a lot just by doing, but by having some info from folks who have done it or from good books gets you started in the right direction.

    Hey, Jo - I don't know why it is but we also always end up carrying too many roosters in the flock!

    Hi, Stevie - Thanks much for commenting. We have never done in our whole flock at once. Always have some two and three year olds in with the new batch. ('Course, we keep them segregated until the newbies are big enough to co-habit with the old girls.)

    Aimee - Welcome as a first time commenter! Yes, you could certainly do it that way. Butcher all the old hens when the new ones are ready to take their place. We always keep ours at least for two years.

    Hey, Erin - You're so very welcome. I know you and hubby will have no trouble once you get into chickens. You can't expect to fry or roast the "retired" laying hens but, boy, do they ever make tasty meat for casseroles, soups, chicken salad, etc. A great way to raise your own meat to compliment your garden produce.

    Hi, Claire - I didn't say there were no chickens shocked, embarrassed or humiliated, now did I? I'm sorry to say that may have happened. But harmed . . . nope. :o)

    Hey, Jen - Supposedly, a farm chicken (that has a good life) will easily live to be around 7. Some have been said to make it to 12! And they will always come back into laying after a molt, but with each successive year, they will lay fewer eggs. The first year is their high point and then it goes down from there. But we regularly keep our laying hens for 2-3 years . . . if they pass the culling tests! The thing to think about is that an older hen that is not laying many eggs will eat just about as much as one who is laying a lot. A totally non-laying hen will coexist very well with the rest of the flock. No problem there.

    Hey, Jody - So when are you guys gonna get chickens? You're welcome.

  10. Thanks for the tutorial Mama Pea. I can see that I will have to give some more serious thought to raising chickens in my own backyard....

  11. You're very welcome, Ruthie. I just know you would love having the chickens and eggs once you got into it.

    If you decided you didn't want the old birds for stewing, there are usually lots of people who will take them to butcher for themselves . . . and be glad to get them.