While many older books make it sound life threatening the molting period for chickens and other poultry is a natural process and with good care your healthy Michigan flock will fly right through it without problems. Here is a little bit of information on the molting process and how to care for your flock during molt.
In nature molting generally occurs in birds in the fall, in temperate regions like Michigan. Cooler temperatures and decreasing day length trigger the molt. The birds gradually shed older feathers and replace them with a new, thick layer of feathers. While birds will replace feathers that are pulled completely out of the skin at any time of the year, broken, cut and frayed feathers are only replaced during the molt.
Birds hatched in late spring or early summer may skip the fall molt or have a later, short molt. Birds hatched at odd times of the year generally molt at about a year after they hatched, the first time and then again in late fall. For example chickens hatched in February will probably molt for the first time in February or March the next year and then again in late fall. A bird hatched in April will probably not molt in the first fall, but in the early fall of the next year.
In commercial poultry operations birds are sometimes forced to molt by decreasing light, temperature and cutting the feed ration. This is so all birds in the unit will molt at once and quickly get the process over. In less stringently managed home flocks individual birds will molt at various times and the whole process can spread out over 2-3 months. Depending on the species, the breed and even the individual, birds will start and finish molt at their own pace. The average time a bird takes to complete a molt is 2-3 weeks.
When birds molt they generally stop laying eggs, although some high production strains of laying hens will lay sporadically through the molt. High production strains of chickens also tend to have a quick molting period. Some birds will lose the ability to fly as flight feathers are lost. Most birds do not show any bare spots during molt although an occasional bird will have bare areas.
If you are feeding a good balanced feed and the birds have a clean dry area out of the wind to shelter in, your birds will probably get through the molt without any problems. Growing new feathers is energy intensive and requires lots of protein so during the molt is not a good time to cut feed quality or quantity. In fact the quantity of feed may need to be increased slightly to allow for cooler weather and the molt using more energy.
Supplementing with a little high protein, high fat feed during molting in the fall will increase the beauty of the feathers and decrease the time spent in molt. Things to add to the ration include sunflowers, hulled or whole, field peas, higher protein feed like game bird feed, meat scraps, even suet. Don’t increase the supplements to more than 10% of the normal ration.
If your birds don’t free range vegetables and fruits are good supplements any time, but particularly during the molt. Try such things like cabbage heads, split pumpkins and winter squash, kale, spinach, apples, and pears. Once again don’t overdo supplemental feeds.
While molting may lower the birds immune system slightly, there is no reason to fear that molting will make a healthy bird sick. There is no need to add antibiotics, vitamin supplements or exotic drugs to their diet. The mortality associated with molting in earlier times probably came from cold, wet weather and lower food availability in the fall. Your birds may not look as nice, feathers are lost from tails and wings, pin feathers may stick out and coloring can appear dull. But if the birds are eating and acting normally they are fine.
Chickens may stop laying eggs as they molt. Eggs may also appear smaller, irregularly shaped or colored during molt. Production type chicken breeds like leghorns, Isa browns, and sex-link layers will probably only skip a few days of laying with good management. This includes 14 hours of light in the coop, by adding supplemental lighting. But after each molt a hen lays fewer eggs during the following season. Most other types of poultry stop laying in the fall anyway and don’t resume laying until spring.
Remember that birds that have had their wings trimmed to keep them from flying will grow in new wing feathers during a molt and will regain the ability to fly. You will need to trim them again.
The length of time a bird takes to molt and the amount of laying a hen does during molt is partly hereditary. When selecting birds for breeding keep birds that go through molts quickly and easily and in chickens wanted for eggs, select parent hens that lay during molt.
Molting birds will give you a lot of feathers to use for crafts or sell. Pick them up frequently so they don’t get dirty.
In short the molting period of birds is a natural and necessary process. If your Michigan flock has good feed and dry, draft free shelter they will come through it just fine and look more beautiful than ever.