Molting Season or What the Heck is Up with These Chickens?

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These birds are hiding a secret!

For some reason, molting season always catches me off guard. I think that maybe the chickens are conspiring against me and have moved their nests to exotic locations such as between the big round hay bales or in the grass behind the corn crib. Maybe the dogs have decided that their usual “cut” is too small and they’ve taken it upon themselves to increase their protection payment. Then, one day, it hits me: the chickens are molting!

You’d think I’d notice that the girls are starting to look a bit rough and have cut down on oyster shell consumption. Oh, no! I don’t notice until I’m down to a dozen or less eggs per day (from about 40 hens) and feathers are drifting in the corners of the coop.

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Pretty obvious, right?

Molting, the annual loss and regrowth of feathers, is an entirely natural process that seems to vary in degree from year to year. Some years I don’t notice a marked decrease in production and there aren’t all that many feathers floating in the air. Other years, such as this one, there are feathers EVERYWHERE, not only in the corners of the coop, but under the lilac bushes, around the water hydrant, and in my hair. Egg production has gone down from 18 – 20 eggs per day to 6 – 10. This is not helpful when I have a large order to fill by the end of the month!

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Decreased egg production is a hallmark of molting season.

Feathers are 85% protein, so chickens’ nutritional needs really increase as they go through the process. I give a layer feed with increased protein, vitamins, and minerals to make sure they stay healthy throughout the molt. It’s no wonder they stop laying while molting – an egg contains about 15% protein, so is much less demanding on the bird than growing feathers.

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This Barred Rock is getting new feathers on her neck and back.

Even the young birds go through a kind of mini molt as they mature from non-producing juveniles to productive adults.

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My spring chickens are shedding feathers, too. They’re losing their soft “baby” feathers in exchange for more durable “adult” feathers.

Molting takes anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months, depending on the chicken. It is tied to day length, so usually happens in the fall, but sometime occurs in the spring. Their nutritional needs go up, they’re stressed, and are super sensitive to touch. Although it’s inconvenient for me, I’m sure it’s much more so for them!

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Sub Zero Chickens

It’s cold. Not whine about it weatherman cold (which seems to be anything below 65 degrees Fahrenheit), but single digit to sub zero air temp with minus double digit wind chill cold. Welcome to winter in Iowa!

When it’s this cold, I try to fortify the chickens as best I can. In the past, that meant making sure they had plenty of balanced layer feed, clean water in heated containers, and well lined nest boxes. A couple of days ago, I decided to give them a little ground corn to give them something to do while they’re cooped up. Chickens get bored, you know.

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They cleaned up a whole 5 gallon bucket of ground corn by afternoon chore time! I thought that maybe it was just a novelty thing, so the next day I gave them the same amount with the same results. Today I gave the barn chickens a whole bucket to themselves and the coop chickens part of a bucket of corn and an elderly butternut squash.

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Coop chickens enjoying their heat lamp.

I’ve always read that if your hens have a balanced feed ration you shouldn’t feed them supplemental grain. The thinking behind this is that they’ll go for the new and different rather than what’s best for them. Sound familiar???

Anyhow… my barn hens (older flock) have not been laying worth a darn this winter, so I figured adding corn couldn’t hurt anything. Amazingly, yesterday (with a high of 14 degrees F) they laid twice as many eggs as usual. Crazy! I’m eager to see how many I get tonight. Wish me luck!

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