When they hear me coming they make their way clucking up the little ramp and into the shed, one by one. While they're settling in for the night I check the nests for eggs. On good days there are two--one brown speckled with maroon dots, one a barely-there pink--but often there are none.
It's not like this all the time. Last summer my eight hens averaged three or four eggs a day. But now the days are short, the weather is cold, and the hens are moulting, shedding their old feathers and growing new ones, a process which puts extra demands on their bodies and causes them to temporarily stop laying.
But the main reason that they lay so few eggs is that my hens are four years old. In chicken years, this means that they are perimenopausal. It does not, however, mean that they are near death. Chickens in stress-free environments, and my hens lead extremely serene and peaceful lives, can live a very long time.
During their non-productive years hens still consume--in addition to grass and bugs and garden waste in season--laying pellets ($16.99 a bag) and something called "scratch" ($6.99 a bag). In winter, when there is snow on the ground and they get bored staying in their shed all day, I buy them the occasional fresh cabbage or squash ($2 a pound) to peck at, and a kind of poultry cake with extra protein which costs $7.99. Hens do well in "deep litter," a thick layer of hay that keeps them warm in winter and later becomes the compost that keeps my garden growing, so I buy five or six bales of mulch hay a year, at $2 a bale.
Serious egg producers do not waste resources on perimenopausal hens. Industrial egg farms slaughter their hens before their second birthday--a blessing for the birds, who are kept practically motionless in cages during their productive life.
I am hardly serious, or I would have gotten rid of my hens years ago. But I know that I cannot just keep adding new chickens to my flock year after year. I know that I cannot keep my eight hens forever.
I have it all figured out. In the spring I will go to the feed store and buy half a dozen day-old pullets (at $2.50 each), which I will keep in the basement under a heat lamp and check on and cluck over every couple of hours for weeks. The pullets will prosper under my watchful eye and begin to lay in the early fall. At that time, I will make an appointment with the "chicken processor," and he will in less than half an hour transform my bright-eyed, friendly old hens into featherless, headless carcasses identical to the ones in the supermarket.
I will bring them home in the cooler and put them in the freezer, and for a while I won't want to think about them at all. But eventually I will take them out a couple at a time, put them in the big pot along with some carrots, celery and onions and turn them into fabulous, life-sustaining chicken stock. The meat, tasty but extremely tough, will go to the dogs. And another chicken cycle will have begun.
|(Guest illustration by my grandson, RFT)|