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Chickens & Molting: What You Need to Know

Last Updated: 08.08.20

 

When the chickens start molting, having a chicken cage is a must as some of them might need to be removed from the flock. In general, hens molt twice a year because of daylight changes. However, there are multiple causes for molting and if you raise chickens, you should pay more attention to the flock during the molt. For example, they might need more protein or getting their wounds treated.

 

What is molting?

In general, the molting process takes place twice a year as adult chickens lose the old feathers so a new layer of plumage replaces it. This process of replacing old feathers is known as molting and is how chickens maintain naturally their feathers looking glossy and healthy. 

It is also how chickens prepare for the cold season with new fresh plumage. During the molting process, chickens might get an odd look and egg production will slow down. However, there is no need to be alarmed as it is a normal part of their life cycle and totally harmless.

Although it’s a 100% natural process, every time a chicken loses its protective coating it becomes more vulnerable to diseases and injuries. If you are raising chickens in your backyard, you should watch them attentively during the molting process to keep them safe and healthy.

 

 

Basic info about molting

There are two known types of molts – soft and hard. The molt type is mostly determined by the chickens’ genetic makeup. Commercial farmers generally raise chickens that molt rapidly so egg production doesn’t decrease as it affects the business. 

Between those two types of molts, the soft molt is the more natural process and it takes place through several weeks. For most chickens, the soft molt begins at the beginning of the fall when the days get shorter. 

Because the amount of light that chickens get becomes smaller it acts as a signal that winter is starting and it’s time to change their protective feathers. The process also works the other way. As days start to get longer during spring, a lighter molt takes place.

 

How molting affects egg production

As molting starts, the majority of the chicken’s energy reserves are used for replacing the feathers so egg production slows down or comes to a complete stop. Daylight is how chickens adjust their laying cycle to the time of the year. Most of the chickens need between 14 and 16 hours of daylight to lay an egg. 

During the time of reduced egg production, the chickens are actually preparing for the next months. Into the wild, they would suffer because of the cold days and food or water may be limited. So self-preservation becomes the number one priority.

 

How to stimulate the egg production

You can keep up the egg production using artificial light during the winter months. Artificial light will influence the chickens’ egg-laying internal timer as it is directly coordinated by the amount of available light. 

Turning on some light bulbs inside the coop during the winter mornings might stimulate the egg-laying and they will perceive the fading natural light as a signal to roost. The light bulb you are using doesn’t have to be very bright. A 60-watt bulb should be enough. It is important to have the same amount of light every day so you will need to modify how much time the light is on as the days start to get shorter or longer. 

Don’t forget to secure the lamp as agitated hens might knock off a misplaced lamp and start a fire inside the coop. But having plenty of light is not enough to maintain the number of laid eggs. If the coop is too cold, chickens will stop laying eggs as they will use the energy to keep themselves warm.

 

 

Don’t hold the chicken while molting

Regardless if it’s a soft or hard molt, it could be a painful process so avoid holding the hens while they are replacing their feathers. The freshly developed feathers have a shaft filled with veins that could bleed if it gets cut or injured. This makes the pin feathers very sensible when they are touched. 

The shaft that protects the developing feather is protected by a waxy coating. As the new feathers mature, the waxy coating is removed by the chicken preening itself or it simply falls off. In general, a molt is about 6 to 8 weeks long, but anything from 5 to 12 weeks is considered normal by experienced farmers. During the molt, the new feathers will unfold and the vein will dry up over time.

 

What triggers the molting process

The molting process might be caused by weird lighting conditions. For example, if a farmer keeps a light bulb inside the coop emitting light during the night and then swiftly removes the light. Also, not enough food or water, extreme temperatures, physical stress may start the molt at unusual times of the year.

 

How farmers start the molt

Unfortunately, it is common practice in big chicken farms to artificially start a molt for efficiency and increased egg production. One of the methods used by farmers was to use physical stress to induce a unified molt to their flock. 

They would remove all food from the coops from 7 to 14 days to stress the chicken into molting. This ruthless practice was declared illegal in some countries since the United Kingdom already outlawed it.

 

Molts caused by stress

Stress may cause chickens to molt and it might not be your fault. Hens could get stressed if you add new members to the coop, there is not enough food or water, extreme weather conditions appear, they go through an illness or experience a move. Hens coming out of a broody period might sit on the nest for a long time with not enough food or water. The molt caused by brooding will keep the hen from laying eggs for an extended period. 

 

 

Taking care of the molting chickens

It might surprise you, but feathers are made of 80-85 percent protein. A molting hen can’t sustain both the feather replacement process and the egg production at the same time. So most people start to think about what they should feed the chickens as the molting takes place so they keep the birds healthy.

According to more experienced chicken farmers, providing more protein is essential. A regular feed for chickens that lay eggs has around 16 percent protein. As the molt develops, start to give them a broiler blend of feed which has about 20-25 protein. 

Also, you could provide them some protein-rich treats such as sunflower seeds, soybeans, cooked meat, bone meal or even nuts. If you plan on giving them nuts, make sure they are raw or unsalted. Some farmers use baking protein-rich cornbread to provide their flock with enough protein. 

You can use a regular cornbread recipe and nuts, dried fruit or flaxseed. These supplementary ingredients raise the snack’s protein levels and will help the hens get their feathers back in rapidly. Also, the chickens seem to like this warm protein snack during the winter’s cold days.

 

The hens are picking at one another

If a chicken has bare skin because of a hard molt, it could be more vulnerable to pecking and bullying by other chickens, so watch the molting birds closely. This is an ugly habit of chickens even if they are not molting and it can become really problematic during the molt. In general, the lower-status chickens are the victims of pecking.

While the feathers are growing, their pins are supplied with blood so if they get hurt they will start bleeding. If you find any chickens with blood on skin or feathers, examine them carefully and put them in a separate cage until the wound heals. If you don’t separate the harmed chicken, she might get pecked to death.

If it’s only one small area, apply some methyl blue on the wound. If there are multiple wounds you will have to paint them all and remove the chicken from the flock. This methyl blue will mask the red color so the other flock members are no longer attracted by the blood.

Before applying this simple treatment, clean and dry the skin’s wounded area. Before spraying it, shake well the recipient. Then, from a distance of 4-8 inches spray directly on the wound. Don’t overdo it as a light application is enough. Reapply the treatment once or twice a day until the wound heals.

 

 

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