Molting is the process that chickens (and other birds) go through to replace old broken and dirty feathers with new ones. This is not only for aesthetic reasons but also for health reasons. Healthy new feathers help trap warm air through the winter better than old feathers.
The shorter days of fall normally trigger the molt, ensuring the bird will have nice new feathers to keep them warm through the winter, but stresses such as heat, overcrowding, predators or poor nutrition can also cause a hen to start molting.
The first molt generally occurs at about 18 months of age and then will occur annually after that, usually in the autumn. Good layers tend to molt very quickly (taking 2-4 months) while poor layers can take up to 6-7 months to complete the entire molting process. Hens stop laying while they are molting since all their energy and nutrients need to be concentrated on growing new feathers, although good layers may continue during the initial part of the molt. Roosters also molt and are infertile while they are molting.
A chicken can go through a mild molt and barely look as if she's missing any feathers, or look really awful with huge chunks of feathers missing. My girls seem almost embarrassed, as if they know how horrible they look, and tend to hide behind bushes while they are molting.
They act listless and unhappy. This is normal.
They will bounce back to their perky selves once the molt period is over and they have their gorgeous new glossy, healthy feathers.
Egg production most likely won't return to the same levels as before the first molt but eggs will generally be larger and of better quality.
While the length of each hens' molt can vary widely, the pattern is always the same. It starts at the head and neck, then moves to the saddle, breast, abdomen, wings and finally the tail.
It's fairly easy to recognize a molting hen versus one who is being pecked or the victim of feather pulling because in a molt, the new feathers literally push the old feathers out, so new shafts or quills can be seen where the old feathers are missing. If feathers are being pulled out by other hens, there will be bare spots.
If there are bare patches around the vent, it's most likely lice or other parasites, not a molt. If you notice a hen with a bare breast or abdomen, she's not molting, she's broody. Read more about broody hens HERE.
During a molt, extra nutrition is extremely beneficial to your hens. I developed this easy recipe for Molt Meatloaf that I feed to my hens while they are working hard to grow back their feathers. They love it - and the eggs, oats and ground beef provide protein while the milk products provide added calcium, both of which help their molt go faster and more smoothly.
3 Eggs, lightly beaten
¾ Cup Milk
2/3 Cup Old-fashioned Oats
2/3 Cup Layer Crumble (or pellets moistened in a bit of water)
¼ Cup Wheat germ
¼ Cup Powdered Milk
3 Cloves Garlic, chopped
¼ Cup Fresh or Dried Parsley
1T each Fresh or Dried Sage and Oregano
1 ½ Pounds Ground Beef
In large bowl, combine eggs, milk and molasses. Stir in oats, crumble, wheat germ, powdered milk, garlic and herbs. Add meat and mix well. Pat mixture into a small casserole pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Cool, slice and serve. Leftover slices can be frozen and then defrosted as needed.
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