I ended up in the egg business because I couldn’t resist a 25¢ hen.
We were raising our very first batch of chicks, 25 New Hampshire Reds we got from Oregon State University. At the same time, a barn owl was raising its own offspring in our barn. One day, we saw one of the fledgling owls flying around at dusk: a beautiful sight. A little later we discovered the body of our sole rooster, which was probably the owl’s first kill. Oh, no!
So I called up OSU to see if they had a replacement rooster. “Sure,” I was told, “and plenty of hens, too. We’re having a hen sale.” I bought three replacement roosters, then lost my marbles and bought $7.50 worth of White Leghorn hens at 25¢ each. This brought our total flock up above 40 layers.
Within a few weeks, our New Hampshires started laying, and our Leghorns started laying, and we had more eggs than we knew what to do with. The rest is history.
And the owl? We guessed that it was a practice kill, since the dead rooster (which was delicious, by the way) didn’t have a mark on him. We did nothing about the owl, and it never killed another chicken. Would that other predators were so wise.
Since then, we’ve bought a great many hens from Oregon State University and a few other places. Older hens are called spent hens in the industry. Some people call them rescue hens. (Why it’s a “rescue” when it’s a hen and an “adoption,” when it’s a cat, I couldn’t tell you.)
Rescue Hens 101
Let’s not be superficial. Hens that have been kept in laying cages always look terrible, but that’s not the problem. Their neck feathers have generally been rubbed off (the feed trough is outside the cage and they rub their necks against the bars when reaching for distant morsels), as have the ends of their tail feathers. Their toenails are too long. Their combs often have a bleached appearance. Their beaks have probably been trimmed. None of this matters.
The problem is that they’ve been cooped up in a tiny cage with (usually) two other hens, and this makes up their world. Drop them into an existing flock of uncaged birds, and they will be bullied mercilessly by the other hens, and will probably retreat into a dark corner and refuse to come out, even to eat and drink. Rescue hens need to be transitioned slowly and gently, left alone except by other hens that were removed from their cages at the same time. Keep an eye out for hens that may be hiding. Driving them out of the corners may help. Be prepared to move some to an isolation ward where they won’t be as freaked out. Later, when they’ve adjusted to a cage-free life, you can reintroduce them to the main flock (preferably at night).
This timidity problem is, I think, the main barrier to success with rescue hens.
They are also clumsy from their long confinement. They can fall into a bucket of water and drown. They can’t make it up onto perches or generally move without stumbling. This wears off completely within a few days, but don’t expect much until then.
The stress of the move will cause the hens to stop laying, and they’ll all molt. Don’t expect a lot of eggs until a couple of months after you get them.
My experience is that, in the fullness of time, they learn to act exactly like chickens that had never been kept in cages. Spent hens don’t lay well enough to be profitable in a normal commercial operation, but commercial layers produce so much better than standard breeds that a three-year-old commercial hen will probably outlay a standard-breed pullet.
Picking and Choosing
There are basically two kinds of spent hens: ones that are culled periodically from the flock because they look like they aren’t laying (or look ill), and the entire rest of the flock, which is gotten rid of all at once. Generally speaking, you want to avoid the culls, who have been selected specifically because something’s wrong with them.
My preference is to get birds from full-time poultry professionals, because they can be counted upon to know diseases when they see them and do something about it. Every time I go to the small-animal auction, I see diseased poultry from backyarders and small farmers. Mostly scaly leg mites. (An auction yard is a place to sell poultry, but never to buy.)
I should point out that one of the reasons everybody buys day-old chicks is that a hatchery that’s run halfway competently can guarantee that you get disease-free chicks (because the eggshell is a highly effective barrier to disease transmission, but this just isn’t the case with older birds.
Connecting with good sources of spent hens may be tricky. Find out who your area’s Extension Service Poultry Specialist is and ask: that’s probably the best way.