Why and when do chickens molt and how you can help them?

Molting or moulting (British English) is a natural, periodic process of shedding feathers and regrowing them that all chickens (hens and roosters) go through. Humans do molt, too. We shed hairs and skin cells. A chicken starts dropping feathers in late summer to early fall, but some won’t even start molting until early winter. Molt’s purpose is to supply chickens with fresh, new feathers — the best defense against skin infections, and the cold and precipitation of winter.

Chickens molt in a predictable order beginning at the head and neck, proceeding down the back, breast, wings and tail.

Chickens will go through several molts during their lives. The first is around 6–8 days of age. Their second molt is between 8–12 weeks. And the adult molt occurs at approximately 18 months old, usually around late summer or early fall, and the replacement feathers are fully in within 8–12 weeks. However, not all chickens conduct their molts in a conventional manner and may take as long as 4 to 6 months to complete the molt, depending on the conditions it occurs in, so be patient.

Egg production will diminish or stop whilst your hens are molting. This is because hens need a tremendous amount of protein to lay eggs and also to create new feathers during their molt. But they cannot do both at the same time. It is either eggs, or new feathers, but NOT both at the same time. Naturally, the need to grow feathers overrides the need to lay eggs. To put this into perspective, feather production requires around 2½ to 3 times the energy that egg production does.

There are several reasons or conditions that will trigger a molt:

  • The completion of the laying cycle
  • Fatigue
  • Lighting conditions — Usually, adult molting occurs in the fall when the number of daylight hours decrease and periods of darkness increase
  • Parasites
  • Disease
  • Pecking order
  • Irregular feeding and malnutrition

Here are some helpful tips for helping your hens through the molting process:

  • Pack a protein punch in your chicken feed — 16–22% is about right. Mealworms are a great natural source of protein. It can become quite expensive to constantly buy them, so you might want to culture your own mealworms. Alternatively, you can consider opting for product like, Nutrena’s NatureWise Feather Fixer, which can help your birds get through molt quicker. This complete feed with 18% protein and fortified with vitamins and minerals is perfect for feather regrowth and eggshell strength. This product can also be fed year round if desired. You can purchase this product from Amazon or another online retailer or at your local farm and feed store, if the price is cheaper.
  • Provide access to plenty of fresh, clean water and stable feeding regimen.
  • Add probiotics, prebiotics and vitamins to feed will help your chickens get through it as quickly as possible. I highly recommend Big Ole Bird poultry probiotic; it’s packed with polyelectrolytes, probiotics, essential vitamins and nutrients. Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and sea kelp are a great source of vitamins, minerals and Omega 3 fatty acids. Food sources of prebiotics are barley, wheat, flaxseed, oatmeal, rye, garlic.

  • Additionally, educating yourself on the process of molt will help you and your birds get through this transition period seamlessly.
  • Chicken skin is sensitive during molt, so reduce handling and provide plenty of space (four square feet per chicken inside the coop and 10 square feet outside of the coop) and clean bedding for your chickens.
  • Provide proper air ventilation and ammonia control to reduce the probability of a bacterial challenge.
  • Keep the coop neat and tidy. Infections can also happen because of poor cleanliness. Also, try to clean out feathers from the coop.

Check out this video — the chicken care Dos and Don’ts when the chickens are molting:

 

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