How to Decide when to Cull a Chicken {The Story of Little Henny}

How to Decide when to Cull a Chicken {The Story of Little Henny} Whole-Fed Homestead

Little Henny was one of our original chickens, she was on the homestead for three years with us.

The name “Henny” is because we had five Buff Orpingtons who I couldn’t tell apart at first, so they were all called “Hennys.” As they got older and developed personalities they got additional descriptors… Little Henny was the smallest of the bunch.

We’re wildly creative.

Little Henny had a terrible molt last fall. The worst I’ve seen. And she never quite recovered. She grew enough good feathers to make it through the winter okay, but she didn’t grow back a beautiful coat of feathers like everyone else had.

She had a fine summer, basking in the sun and hunting bugs with her friends.

And then this fall she molted hard again. What I mean by this is that she dropped a ton of feathers very quickly (some chickens molt gracefully and you can hardly tell, and some seem to just drop them all at once). And as they started to grow back, her feathers were coming in scraggly, thin, brittle, and twisted-looking.

How to Decide when to Cull a Chicken {The Story of Little Henny} Whole-Fed Homestead

She seemed to go downhill from there. The following couple months she looked just… kind of sad. She didn’t venture far away from the coop, wasn’t interested in foraging, and didn’t seem particularly excited about life. And the colder it got, the more miserable she became.

Our chickens have access to all the high-quality organic feed they want, plus acres of greenery and bugs to free-range, and of course they have free-choice calcium and grit, as well as fresh water, dust bath areas… everything a chicken could want, really.

Of course I examined her on multiple occasions, with no signs of anything wrong. And besides, all the other chickens were beautiful with gorgeous, full, shiny feathers… and just in time for winter.

I wondered if maybe she was being bullied and I just didn’t see it happening? So for two weeks I put her in the run by herself during breakfast with her own huge bowl of food, so she could eat in peace and eat as much as she wanted without being bothered. She seemed to like this, but it didn’t appear to change her behavior, demeanor, size, or feather quality at all.

Our egg-layers are half pet and half farm animal. I adore them dearly- each one with her own quirks and personality. They are a joy to be around and I can tell they like my company in return.

Crazy chicken lady ambushed by chickens, How to Decide when to Cull a Chicken {The Story of Little Henny} Whole-Fed Homestead

But the reality is that they are also here to produce food for us. They aren’t quite the same as a dog or house cat. That doesn’t mean I won’t give them my all- everything I can if they’re sick, oh no. I’ve had my share of chicken house guests. We’ve bathed them, blow dried them, massaged them, super-glued them, and hand-fed them. I’ve even had to stick my fingers in one’s bum… it was necessary, and it saved her life.

What we won’t do is coddle them. Or take them to the vet- which leaves all medical care up to us and Dr. Google.

A chicken who is sickly in a place where everyone else is thriving (when we’ve tried all we could to help her) isn’t a chicken we want to keep around. She becomes a liability- she could attract predators, and she’s more likely to pick up a disease from other wildlife.

Little Henny wasn’t getting any better and there was nothing else I could do for her. She wasn’t adding any value to the homestead, and she wasn’t enjoying her life anymore. We made the decision- it was her time to go.

We hatched out some chicks this summer and had two roosters that we needed to cull before winter also, so we would cull Little Henny when we processed them. It was the right thing to do, for her and everyone else’s sake.

We put chicken butchering on our fall to-do list, but it wasn’t an absolute must-do right away, top-priority item. We’d get to it when we get to it. Amazing how time flies, isn’t it…

Fast forward a month. Karl put the chickens to bed one night and mentioned that Little Henny was standing outside the chicken house and didn’t seem to want to go in. Not completely unusual, she’s almost always one of the last ones in. He picked her up, carried her into the house, and put her into one of the vacant nest boxes (she appreciated the extra coziness).

The following morning I open the doors to let everyone out of the coop, and as usual they all came pouring out, excited to start their day. I stepped into the chicken house just as Little Henny came tumbling out of the nest box. She tried to stand up but fell over again. I immediately scooped her up into my arms. It was 12 degrees F out that morning, so I walked quickly back to the house with her- I would check her over in the warmth of the house.

She was alive and breathing, but her eyes were closed, she wouldn’t hold her head up, and she was mostly unresponsive. She was very cold; I sat in the chair, holding her close in an attempt to warm her up and let her know that she was safe. But really, I was hoping she wouldn’t wake up.

And in that moment I knew I had let her down. I felt awful. We made the decision to cull her weeks ago, we should have done it weeks ago. She suffered, unnecessarily because of our focus on other tasks.


I waited a few minutes for Karl to finished his work meeting, and we all went outside to the chopping block.

Because of Little Henny’s odd health situation, we wanted to see if there was anything happening internally… like cancer, a blockage, or something wrong with an organ. So after she was dispatched, we performed a necropsy- all her organs looked normal and just fine. What I couldn’t believe was how skinny she was. She had literally almost no breast meat.

I had picked her up just a week earlier and thought her weight seemed fine; she was small, but plenty meaty. It must have been the past couple weeks of frigid weather that took all her reserves and burned up all the muscle she had. I don’t spend as much time with chickens in the winter, so I hadn’t noticed how small she had gotten. With her spindly little feathers, she couldn’t keep her body heat in.

This was a complete chicken-mom fail for me. I wasn’t paying enough attention and I let her suffer for longer than she should have. This was not the standard that I intended to keep when we first decided to get chickens.

This is also something I will learn from- and I hope you will too. 

How to Decide When to Cull a Chicken

You may be butchering chickens for the freezer because you have too many roosters, or your older laying hens are drying up- and that’s just fine… and not really what I’m talking about here.

But if you are trying to decide what to do based on the chicken’s well-being- making the decision to cull is never easy and rarely clear. And while it’s a little different than making the decision to put down a house-pet, its very much the same in that the tipping point seems to be this:
1. are they suffering, and
2. what are the chances that they will improve in a reasonable amount of time.

In my experience in growing up with all types of animals, there often comes a point in the animal’s illness when you just know. It’s the look in their eyes, it’s a new symptom, it’s a turn for the worse… it registers a feeling deep inside that lets you know it’s time. And once your mind has made this decision, there is almost a sense of relief.

I think a lot of people run into trouble because they aren’t willing to take a chicken to a vet or there are no poultry vets around, they have limited medical background themselves, and they aren’t entirely sure what is wrong with the chicken in the first place to determine what the prognosis might be. This is where some research up front can go a long way.

A book like The Chicken Health Handbook is a fantastic resource for every chicken keeper. This is not a general chicken-keeping guide, but a reference book that covers the diseases and conditions that can affect your flock. And while you don’t have to necessarily follow the treatment advice in this book, it is helpful for at least figuring out what you’re dealing with, so you have a place to start. This is a book you should read before you have problems in your flock…

chicken-health, How to Decide when to Cull a Chicken {The Story of Little Henny} Whole-Fed Homestead

There are also some really great (free) chicken keeping and veterinary chicken help groups on Facebook that I have personally found to be incredibly helpful. Just reading through the posts, seeing what other people have had success with, and learning what professionals recommend has increased my knowledge substantially and given me the confidence to know I am making the right decisions with our chickens.

If you’re reading this post, I know we have one thing in common: we enjoy our chickens and we want to do right by them. When faced with a tough situation, especially with the well-being of a chicken and the impact of your decision weighing on your flock and family, all you can do is make the best decision you can with all the information you have. Best of luck to you and your gals!

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5 thoughts on “How to Decide when to Cull a Chicken {The Story of Little Henny}

  1. We are just over a year into having chickens, and haven’t had to face this kind of decision yet. I imagine that it’s very similar to making the decision for our dogs and cats; even though our chickens don’t all have individual names (we’re even less creative….every Buff is called “Mama Buff”, every Red “Mama Red”. :)
    All we can probably do is the best we can….I feel guilty for not keeping our girls safer from predators (we lost 3 to a fox this spring). It was so tough to find the balance between letting them enjoy their free-ranging and keeping them safe.

  2. Reading Henny’s story pulled at my heart string. I had to have 4 of my hens put down. I had been wanting to do this for almost a year, but I didn’t have the heart, because in a way they had become my pets and were so entertaining to watch. But all 4 showed signs of something not going right with their health. Their egg production slowed to almost a halt and when fall came upon us they all molted so badly to bare skin. I had never seen this before in them, this year was the worst. It was so hard for me to let them go. I could not even think of eating them so they had to be buried.
    Even chickens become part of your lives the same way dogs or cats do.

  3. Ahh..Thank you so much. I totally get it. I appreciate your honest account of culling. I’m a rookie, an amateur and I have learned from you. I’m grateful!

  4. I had to do this to my one and only buff Orpington 3 1/2 yo. She just started slowing down to where nothing interested her. Then wouldn’t eat Or drink either and just “slept” in the hen house. It wasn’t disease. It was just old age I think. But rather than keep her with us and “hope” she gets better and she was suffering when I picked her up she would make a tiny mouse sound like she was in discomfort. I grieved seeing her gone and she was from the beginning the last hen in at night always did her own thing. We called her Tina. I know I’ll have to do it again some day but I don’t think it will get any easier or less painful.:-(

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