Published September 8, 2020
(Molting: BEFORE & AFTER. Look at those SHINY new feathers!)
The days are getting shorter, the mornings have become crispy again & it’s now dark during morning chores. You now may start seeing a decrease in egg production and if you are a first time chicken keeper, you may be thinking "what the heck gives?".
Slowly, as the days continue to go by you notice it looks like a feather bomb went off in the chicken yard... they are all signaling one thing and that’s the coming of the fall and winter seasons. As the sun shines less and less each day, it signals to our birds to start their annual molt- a going of old and coming of new!
In today’s article we are going to discuss what molting is, how it affects our flocks health and behavior & lastly how we can help make this time a little easier on them. Let’s get started!
How Often Do Poultry Molt?
Chickens, ducks, turkeys and in-fact all poultry molt once a year, usually starting in late summer, some late fall. Every bird is different and some birds internal molting clock doesn't start ticking until much later in fall when the days are very short. Poultry won’t start their first 'hard molt' until after they reach a year old.
Young birds go through a period of about 2 small molts and will keep their second set of feathers until the following fall, of which they will finally do their first hard molt and drop all of their feathers. After the first hard molt they will continue to molt each coming summer/fall time of year.
(All my girls foraging in beautiful late winter, with all new coats!)
Common Molting Characteristics:
Generally poultry begin their molt with their head and neck, moving to their wings and body and then ending with their booty, legs and tail. Every bird is different but some will molt more aggressively than others. The ones that molt more aggressively or faster will be done with their molt way sooner than those who molt less aggressively or slower. Those who molt slow sometimes take MONTHS before they are finally done. You will see a direct correlation with those who molt the hardest, fastest and most aggressive are always the chickens that begin laying sooner and they will be your best and most consistent layers! Another good indication that your flock is taking a break from laying is how bright and healthy their combs look- a big bright comb means the bird is in mid-lay, a smaller pale comb usually indicates a bird that is out of lay and is in molt or could even be sick. Usually birds that are sick also have shriveled pale combs, see photos below.
(My sweet late Tina, notice how big, red and beautiful her comb is. She was laying eggs everyday in this picture)
(My late Tina again, notice how pale, dull and small her comb is. She is taking her winter break in this picture)
Common Molting Behavior/Attitude:
I'm just gonna say it like it is - molting is stressful, yall. Your flock is taking every last bit of their energy and all of their calcium and nutrient stores to make shiny new beautiful feathers that will protect them from the elements the coming winter, spring and summer. That being said, your birds will visibly look depressed, sometimes lethargic & even puffed up. Sometimes they’ll sit weird to avoid putting pressure on their pin feathers, they may avoid coming out of the coop to avoid getting picked on by other flock mates and there may even be a decrease in food and water intake. These are all pretty normal symptoms of molting and for the most part they will snap out of it once the majority of their molt is through. But it should be noted that all of these symptoms should be fairly moderate so if you see your bird(s) acting severely ill, it may because of something else to be concerned about, so just keep an eye.
(My sweet late Ethel, she would always be the most puffed up of all the rest!)
A Drop In Egg Production:
This is the topic that ruffles the feathers of poultry keepers the most, pun-intended. This is the time of year we dread because a lack of eggs means one of two things. Either we have to buy from the store or we have to go without, neither of which are ideal for poultry keepers. But in my opinion, it’s absolutely necessary that you allow your flock this time to heal, recoup calcium reserves and just take a dang break from popping out a giant hard turd once a day for us! LOL! But you guys, this topic stretches far past the actual molting stage... see, poultry stop laying when molt starts but they actually won’t naturally start laying again until the days get longer which usually isn’t until late Jan, February and March, way after the actual molting stage has ended. This topic becomes quite controversial as some people will manipulate their flocks environment to encourage egg-laying even during the winter time. We will discuss that in more detail in the next paragraph. TIP: If you want to make sure you have eggs in the fall/winter- get pullets/chicks in the spring, the will be coming into lay right as the others are starting to stop.
Another great way to make sure you have eggs in the off season is to preserve the eggs you do have when the chickens are laying strong, check out this article I wrote on 6 different ways to preserve eggs!
(30 chickens and 3 eggs in the nesting boxes, your sign that it is officially "Molting Season")
Adding Light To Your Coop To Increase Egg Production:
If you’re like me and located near a chicken egg farm, you may have driven by at night and have seen the lights shining bright inside their barns. Well that is because a lot of commercial egg chickens never see a moment of darkness EVER. As we discussed briefly above, the reason for this is when the days get shorter poultry will automatically begin to decrease their egg laying, which is not ideal or profitable for the commercial egg farmer. But there are ways they manipulate their environment to avoid the winter egg-laying break. For example, adding supplemental lights in the coop at night to trick the birds internal system to think its still spring/summer and thus not triggering their annual molt. Now you might be thinking, what’s the problem with that? Don’t we want eggs in the winter? Well, I guess it just depends on who you ask. I, for one love my birds as pets and want them to have a long healthy life. I have chickens and ducks both approaching a decade old. Who still lay me eggs in the spring/summer time and this is because I have allowed them to take their necessary breaks every single year and let their bodies heal. I firmly believe because of that, they continue to repay me with years upon years of eggs.
The absolutely devastating reality is that most commercial egg-laying chickens usually only live 1-2 years tops (that is if stress, infection or pecking doesn't kill them before that) and it may interest you to know that, chickens are just like humans, in the sense that they are born with only a certain amount of eggs in their body, once they deplete those egg-stores they can never develop or produce more eggs ever again. So if you manipulate a chicken to lay when it’s not supposed to, it will go through its egg-stores twice as fast as a chicken that is allowed to take that time off. Meaning, a chicken that could possibly lay up to six years old, will now only lay up to three years. Also, it needs to be mentioned that when you manipulate chickens and their natural egg break, you can inevitably cause secondary issues to form like diseases and parasites. Egg yolk peritonitis- being the most common of all- is a disease of which they begin laying eggs internally- causing infections and severe sepsis, incurable and 100% deadly. Severe skin conditions and parasites can also be a major issue from not properly molting, poultry that don't molt, will have tattered and frayed feathers which will expose their skin to sunburns, frost bite, pecking from other birds and an outbreak of parasites. When birds shed their old feathers they shed parasites too, which can't be shed if they don't molt. In my opinion, just don’t do it, your chickens deserve better and there are so many ways you can preserve eggs and enjoy them over the winter time a lot of which I will make a full article specifically just about, so sit tight.
Adding 'Egg'stra Protein To Their Diet:
One of the best and easiest ways to help your flock get through this time is to offer extra protein in the form of treats & protein rich snacks. I personally like to offer warm oatmeal or scrambled eggs first thing in the morning with yogurt and mealworms. I like to also offer a scratch mix that consists of cracked corn, grains, black oil sunflower seeds and oats daily during this time. I get my scratch grain from Tractor Supply and I throw in my own homegrown mealworms for added nutrients and protein. I will generally throw the scratch out an hour or two before they go up to roost so it will help keep them warm and insulated over the night hours, that is also when they do their majority of feather growth so it helps having energy to facilitate that process.
(My late Miss Thelma enjoying some fresh scratch grain I tossed out in the morning)
Want To Raise Your Own Mealworms???
Watch This Video!
Providing Heat/Insulation To Your Coop:
In my opinion? It’s just not needed and there’s absolutely NO reason for it. Poultry have been around for hundreds of years, way before electricity even. Their bloodlines survived the bitter cold and blistering hot summers and so can your birds if you allow them to naturally acclimate to their surroundings without any interference from us. Every bird is different and some birds molt much later in the fall/winter seasons and if you live in a very cold part of the country, you may begin to see your first freezing temps in October, when some birds might be mid-molt and as bare bones as can be. Even so, you don’t need to add any heat to the coop. Of course, it’s absolutely necessary to keep your coop draft free so that they don’t get a chill but they absolutely do not need heat, regardless of how naked and pitiful they look. The main thing to remember is that any coop that has added heat, has a HUGE risk of catching fire (which happens to farmers/poultry keepers every year) and it also holds major risk for your birds to develop hypothermia in the event your power goes out in the middle of a storm or power outage. If your birds are accustomed to warm temperatures and then are drastically exposed to below freezing temps, this will cause your birds to literally freeze to death in a matter of an hour or two. So my best advice? Just don’t heat your coop, there’s absolutely no need. In the next paragraph we will discuss some of the easier and safer ways to help heat your birds up, internally!
(My late Crested Creme Legbar hen who was probably my hardest molter and also my strongest layer! She laid everyday for 4 plus years before she passed this past summer)
Another great way to help your flock keep balanced nutrition & protein coming in and also aid in growing back super shiny soft feathers is a specialized molting feed. One that I use and I highly recommend trying is Feather Fixer from Nutrena and it can be found at most feed stores and Tractor Supply. I’ve been using it for about 5 years and I’ve always had the best results using it on my flock. When on this feed during molt, my birds seem to go through less of a struggle, they seem in general-more chipper and they grow back the most stunning new feathers. I only feed it during this time of year and as soon as I see my birds done molting I switch back to their normal Mixed Flock feed. Feather Fixer contains a higher protein content at 18% and has Chelated trace minerals which support feather regrowth and eggshell strength. The birds really need the extra protein during this time and this feed really seems to help alot.
10/10 recommend. (not sponsored)
(This is the Feather Fixer specialized feed, I get it at Tractor Supply)
Boosting Your Flocks Energy:
You can add certain vitamins and supplements to your flocks water like Nutri-Drench or Sav-A-Chick to water to help boost & give energy! You’d be surprised how much a little of each can really boost your flocks all over health, especially during stress-full times like these and I personally use and highly recommend both! It’s like the difference of fighting off a cold with day-quil and fighting off with nothing at all. Just like a human cold, of course, they will get through it much like we would, but if we can help make their time molting just a bit better by giving them some extra energy, why wouldn't we? Sav-A-Chick contains probiotics and vitamins which help boost the immune system and energy of poultry (LINKED HERE). Nutri-drench (for poultry) is a superior, nutrient rich, high energy support for sick, weak, or stressed birds (LINKED HERE). What makes nutri-drench so incredible and unlike anything else is that Nutri-Drench shunts directly through the stomach wall and into the bloodstream, eliminating the hours needed for digestion. Nutri-Drench can be measured in the bloodstream in minutes, with 99% utilization. They both can be found at Tractor Supply or online.
(SAV- A CHICK- Available in Electrolyte & Probiotic formulas)
Separate Young Roosters/Pecky Birds:
I specifically say young roosters for a reason, as older roosters will not mate when hens are not laying. Those who live in the city or who don’t have roosters, can just skip right over this paragraph but those of us who do have them may not even think to separate the cockerels from the ladies during this time of year. Yes, the older roosters will also molt after year 1 but as mentioned above, the young roosters will not molt the first year with the older hens. They also so happen to be coming into 'manhood' sort of speak during this time, so they are extra rambunctious and can really do a lot of damage on brand new pin-feathers coming in and even cause your hens to not even want to leave their coop. The same thing goes for other hens who are mean and are picking on others. You can either buy pin-less peepers (LINKED HERE), which essentially block your chicken from being able to pick the other chickens feathers or you can just separate the mean chicken by putting them in a separate coop or in a dog crate and then return her back to the flock in a week or two when she settles down and the pecking order has reset.
(A young cockerel I've been separating from my older hens while they molt)
Avoid Handling Your Flock:
Picking up your birds and or kids handling them is probably one of the most important topics of this whole discussion. The simple answer is that it should be avoided if possible because their pin-feathers are very sensitive and they can break and bleed very easily during this time. I avoid picking them up unless absolutely necessary. Severely damaged pinfeathers will never go back the same and again its very painful for them to break.
(Every single one of the pin feathers is a nerve, when you pick them up- it bends, breaks, twists those nerves, so avoid it if you can, its very painful to be picked up)
How To Utilize Dropped Feathers:
There are quite a few ways feathers can be utilized! The easiest & probably best way is to rake them up, add them to the compost and just let them compost naturally. Feather meal which is a common garden amendment, is high in protein & nitrogen which helps kick start your compost. The can be added to beds under compost as a mulch or around the base of trees which will break down and feed your trees over time. But my favorite way to utilize them above all is by cleaning them up, sanitizing them, and making feathered jewelry with with! So easy and so fun!
(This is our compost pile that has our goat pen shavings, chicken coop shavings, feathers, and droppings from all the livestock pens)
(A pair of rooster feathers earrings I made from my late rooster Freddy's feathers, that I collected one year when he was molting)
Welp you guys, that’s the skinny on molting. Literally, skinny little bird butts! lol! But I really do hope this helps you better understand the molting process, how it affects your flock and how you can help make this time a little easier on them. All of my love, from one crazy chicken keeper to the next!
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