Updated: Jan 12, 2018
Every year around fall equinox, panic sets in for our new clients as they notice concerning changes in their hens including feather loss and egg production loss. It’s excellent to hear that chicken moms and dads are aware of the changes taking place in their flock. When these kinds of changes occur, it’s a good idea to give a quick health check up to the girls. But generally, if its late summer or fall, and your hens are healthy and active when these symptoms occur, you can rest assured that it’s simply their yearly molt.
What is molting?
Molting is an annual occurrence in which both roosters and hens lose their old, worn-out feathers to regrow new ones that will help keep them warm during winter. During a molt, hens require tons of protein and energy to regrow feathers, and in order to reserve these resources, they will usually stop laying eggs. In rare occasions, a hen will continue laying during a mold, but the eggs are usually soft-shelled.
Molting occurs over a period of weeks or months as it progresses from the head, through the body, and ending at the tail. Just before a molt, feathers lose their sheen and become very dull in appearance. The progressive design of a molt helps to prevent a chicken from being barren of feathers as the weather begins to cool, although sometimes it is occasionally unsuccessful. The process of molting then begins with the feathers on the head, followed in order by the neck, back, breast, stern, thighs, wings, and finally the tail. Good layers begin to molt later in the year and finish more quickly, taking only 2-3 months. Poor layers start molting earlier, usually before September, and take much longer (up to 6 months) to finish.
FOCUS ON A HIGH PROTEIN DIET
Feathers are made up of 85% protein, so during a molt, a chicken’s need for dietary protein increases. Make sure to feed molting chickens a higher protein layer feed (16-18% protein). It’s also a good idea to limit treating hens with scratch; and instead, supplement with high protein treats such as:
Sprouted grains, such as alfalfa
Raw meat or fish (not chicken)
We do not recommend offering them eggs as a protein supplement, regardless of whether they're raw, scrambled, or hard boiled. This can cause egg cannibalism, a nightmare of a behavior in which chickens eat their own eggs or other eggs after laying them because of their flavor and their high protein and calcium content. As always, Apple Cider Vinegar is a great health supplement when added to their water. It is packed with vitamins and minerals and acts as a natural health booster that can help chickens keep their energy up to get through a molt much easier.
PIN FEATHERS AND FEATHER PECKING
The new feathers that begin to grow in are called pin feathers. The blood seen in pin feathers is normal, and is used to nourish growth. However the blood in pin feathers can incite feather picking in a flock, especially because they’re all in high need of protein which is found in feathers. Keep stress levels particularly low this time of year, and keep an eye out for cannibalism. Tips for keeping stress levels low in a molting flock:
Move slowly around your hens.
Don’t introduce too much change at once. (Adding new birds, coop construction, introducing light, or locking them in the coop for longer periods than normal can incite bad behavior.)
Leave out treats for them to scratch and peck through for entertainment (pumpkins are readily available at this time of year and are a great low calorie, vitamin packed treat).
A GOOD TIME FOR DEWORMING
If you like to deworm your flock once a year, this is a great time to deworm your flock. While using a dewormer, eggs can’t be eaten, so it makes sense to deworm when there are fewer eggs to throw away. Additionally, this ensures they’re getting 100% of the nutrients they need for the molt from their diet, rather than being robbed by a mess of roundworms.
EFFECTS OF MOLTING
After molting, at the beginning of the next laying cycle, feed efficiency is improved, eggs are larger, and egg quality is better than it was at the end of the last laying cycle. Each passing year, though, production decreases overall so hens naturally won’t produce as well as they once did, and egg quality declines faster.
MOLTING CONTESTS FOR COMIC RELIEF
For pictures of really terrible molts, for assurance or entertainment, you can browse through the Backyard Chickens Molt Competition. Here are the links for this year’s competition as well as a couple years before: 2013, 2012, and 2011. We all need someone who smiles at us when we’re having a bad hair day.