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I always knew this day would come. What I didn’t know is just how I would react. Making tough decisions on the homestead is part of life, but no matter how many times we’re faced with making them they never get any easier.
When we first got chickens, I told myself I wouldn’t name them so I wouldn’t get attached to them as pets since I knew they were eventually going to be a food source for us when they stopped producing eggs. But it is hard not to become connected to these amazing creatures we feed day in and day out. We learn their personalities and status in the pecking order of the flock. We collect the eggs they lay for us that we eat to nourish our bodies. For that we are so thankful.
I’ve been hunting for a number of years and have even gone solo hunting and harvested, field dressed and butchered a deer all on my own. While I felt blessed to be able to harvest that animal to nourish my body, I didn’t have a personal connection with it before that moment. I didn’t raise that animal, feed it day in and day out. Harvesting wild game is a totally different experience than culling or butchering an animal you raised on the homestead.
Recently we discovered a sick chicken in the coop. A few months ago, I found an odd mess in the nest box. It was a soft papery shell with some egg white coming out of it, another scrunched up papery looking shell next to it and a little bit of yolk on the straw. It was bizarre looking.
Here’s a close up of the one shell that had no egg white attached to it. It appeared to be just the outer shell but it had a rubbery, papery texture and was laid at the same time as the other mess that was slightly more formed.
Our chickens are about two years old and were molting at the time this was laid. I was concerned about this and did some research and read this can happen when chickens are getting older and molting so we continued to monitor them.
We did’t find another egg like that, but we did get an occasional mini “wind” egg that is much smaller than a normal size egg and just have egg white inside (we blow these out and plan to decorate them one day for a craft project). We also found an oddly shaped mini wind egg last month.
We always free feed our hens oyster shell and feed their crushed egg shells back to them to give them more calcium. Despite that, the last few weeks we’ve been finding a messy pile of yolk and broken egg shell in the nesting box. We initially thought there was a thin shelled egg that was getting broken when the hens would lay on top of the eggs in the nest box. We started going out to check for eggs in the nest boxes a couple times a day. We’d still find the occasional mess but with 15 hens using the one coop (and typically the one nest box they all insist on using) it was hard to know which chicken was laying this egg. Until I found a sick chicken.
I went out to check for eggs around lunchtime and saw one of the Red Star Sex Link hens in the nesting box. I reached under her to collect the eggs laid by the other hens that morning. She was crouched about an inch off the ground in the nesting box which I thought was odd but figured maybe she was just annoyed because I had disturbed her egg laying. I came out an hour or two later to refill their water and that same hen was crouched in the exact same position in the nest box. Then I knew something was really wrong.
I tried to coax her out but she wouldn’t budge so I had to gently pick her up out of the nesting box. I looked her over more closely to see if I could find out what was wrong. The feathers on her belly were matted flat and caked with dried egg yolk. It didn’t look too comfortable so I figured maybe that was bothering her. I sat her back down and she went and drank some water but continued to act lethargic.
I came out later in the day to check on her and she was walking really slow and had an odd wide legged gait. I flipped her over again to look at her vent again. It looked normal so I sat her back down still puzzling over what was wrong with her. She did her slow walk over to a straw bale and then I saw something odd coming out of her vent. Some other chickens saw it too and came running over and actually trying to peck at it! I shooed them away.
The hen squatted down and passed an odd blob of an intact egg yolk with nothing surrounding it, a separate blob of egg white with a thin white membrane partly attached to one end, a scrunched up papery looking shell and a two inch long scrunched up membrane that maybe also could have been a malformed shell (another chicken quickly swiped this since it was the first thing to come out of her so I didn’t get a long look or a picture)
The hen who laid this mess immediately turned around and started eating it and the other hens did to. It was like they all knew she laid this funky stuff they could eat. In the picture below you can see one of the scrunched up rubbery shells just to the right of the yolk. On top of the hen’s foot is the egg white that had the other rubbery, papery partial shell attached to it.
The hen who laid this perked up a bit after passing the mess. I thought about quarantining her for the night but she loaded up in the coop and went up high to roost like she normally does so we let her go for the night. That night I got online frantically doing research to figure out what could be wrong and what we could do about it. I asked fellow homesteaders and chicken owners (and I really wished I had bought a copy of this book a few months ago so I would’ve had it on hand to reference!)
The advice I got all pointed to several possibilities: Peritonitis, internal egg laying, or a lash egg. The prognosis did not look good for her if this was a consistent issue and not just a one time issue. We feed our hens a good feed, free feed oyster shell and also feed their broken up shells back to them for extra calcium. We put ACV in their water and occasionally put garlic in their food to improve chicken health. None of the other chickens appeared sick and they were all laying nice, solid, well formed eggs. Looking back, we’re fairly certain this one hen was likely the one laying the other malformed eggs and slimy messes we’ve been finding in the coop.
The next morning I decided to quarantine this hen in a metal dog kennel to give her some extra TLC and monitor her. She still was a bit lethargic and slow moving but not as bad as the day before. I checked on her multiple times and figured she wouldn’t try laying another egg for a little while after yesterday’s mess. But by mid afternoon, there was another messy blob on the straw floor of the dog kennel that looked pretty similar to the mess she passed the day before.
Everything I had read about her situation made me realize that this wasn’t something she was going to improve from. In fact, if these malformed eggs were to go into her stomach or get stuck inside her she could actually get even more sick. I’ve read and heard that chickens can cover up the fact that they are sick quite well. By the time you notice they are not healthy, they’re probably already pretty sick. I mulled all this over for a while. I talked to my husband. I consulted my homesteading friends and fellow chicken owners.
We decided that we were going to euthanize this hen so she would not suffer anymore. It seemed like the most humane thing to do for her since everything I read and heard was that she would not improve if she was already presenting this sick and things would only get worse for her. We didn’t want her to suffer anymore.
So after dinner, my husband and I went out and gathered up this hen from the metal dog crate. As I was picking her up and carrying her over to the wood chopping block my husband uses to split firewood, I found myself getting a little misty eyed. I thanked her for her life and providing eggs for our family. I said “rest in peace little chickie” and then it was done.
As we walked away from the wood pile, the sun started setting and made a spectacular color array across the sky in front of us. I went and cleaned out her temporary pen with tears dampening my eyes, forcing myself to not let them fall. Telling myself that I know this is the tough part of the homesteader’s life. That it was better off for her in the end to go quickly this way without having to suffer more.
But death is always hard no matter which way you look at it. I thought about the fact that we have 35 chicks in the brooder in our shop right now, 12 of which are Cornish X chicks specifically being raised to harvest as meat chickens to feed our family this next year. I thought about how next time it might not be quite so hard to cull a chicken, or maybe it will. I thought about how someone earlier this week told me they’d rather get their factory raised chicken at the grocery store all nicely packaged in plastic ready to take home than face butchering her own home raised chicken.
Yes it might be hard to butcher an animal, but when we do it ourselves and raise that animal ourselves we at least know it was raised humanely, well cared for, free ranged under the wide Montana sky, and harvested with respect for that animal and the life it gave to feed us.
We’ve been asked by a lot of folks if we ate the hen we culled. We always thought we would eat any chicken we culled from our flock, whether it be an aggressive rooster or old hen. But this chicken was visibly sick and we didn’t want to take a chance that there could be something wrong with the meat so we did not eat her.
Now we only have six “little red hens” and a flock of 14 two to three year old hens. Luckily we have a brooder full of the next generation of egg layers in the shop busy growing their first wing and tail feathers. Next time we are faced with a tough decision on the homestead, I’m not sure that it will be any easier, but at least I know a little bit more of what to expect.
Have you ever had to cull an animal on the homestead? How did you handle it?