Poultry serve multiple purposes on our farm, moving over pastures and gardens in (at the moment) four different flocks of from ten to thirty layers and a couple of roosters. Some of the birds clean up after the grazing animals, but about half of them are pastured in garden areas where we want to apply some high-nitrogen fertilizer, clean up insect pests, scrap out weed seedlings, or flatten a grown-in-place mulch. In the fall, though, when laying slows down, we cull non-layers so we don’t carry so many birds through the winter. This isn’t done on the basis of age, at least not solely — some twenty of our birds are in their fifth year and still productive — but according to a physical examination that considers the space between their pelvic bones, the space between the pelvic bones and the keel bone, the color of their feet and legs, and the condition of their vent.
Two fingers or more space between the pelvic bones, four between pelvis and keel, bleached legs (not yellow), and a moist, open vent are what we are looking for, and three out of four of these will usually win that hen a reprieve from the hatchet. Last week we went over all the birds; seventeen didn’t make the cut. A very busy morning for three of us, and (for one) an afternoon with a couple of canners. Only two birds had eggs in them, which we would consider a good score; the older birds we kept seem to be laying at about sixty percent, not bad for November. We’ve had a lower rate of lay, but much better luck with longevity in our layers since we switched from commercial laying mash to fermented whole grains with no GM or soy; and our mix of whole grains, supplemented three or four times a week with milk or meat scraps, is much cheaper per pound than commercial feed.