How Often Do Chickens Molt?
You walk down to the coop to do chores, open the door, and see feathers everywhere! Your first suspicion is that critters got in and massacred your flock in the night, but upon further inspection all the girls are accounted for. Yes! They do, however, look ragged and naked. You wonder guiltily for a second if you may have ran them over with the mower yesterday.
Not to fear! Depending on the season, what your chickens are going through is totally normal. It is called “molting” and you can expect this to happen once a year for each chicken.
What Is Molting?
Molting is the process of regrowing chickens’ feathers. During the molt, chickens drop old feathers and regrow their new ones to replace them. The molt happens as the seasons change from fall to winter. When the days become shorter and colder, chickens start molting in anticipation for mating season. This process can last anywhere from 3 to 19 weeks, depending on the chicken.
Why Do Chickens Molt?
Chickens were originally jungle birds originating in South East Asia. In the jungle, and before selective breeding, they were smaller bantam-type birds that bred seasonally. The key to getting a good mate in the chicken world (and often in the human world, too,) is to look your best and put on a show. Think shiny bright feathers, voluminous tail, and long, dangerous looking talons: Ooo la la!
Well, after a year of the same feathers in the jungle, these little birds started to look worn out. Their feathers were dull, some were broken, and this just wasn’t going to “fly” when it came to attracting a mate. So, chickens developed the molt, which allowed them to drop old feathers and grow new ones each year.
Growing Feathers Is Hard Work
While the molt is normal, and you shouldn’t be alarmed, it is demanding on a chicken’s body. Feathers are 85% protein and take a lot of energy to grow. This takes energy away from other demanding processes like growing muscle or producing eggs.
Most hobby chicken farmers raise chickens for two reasons: eggs or meat (and maybe to teach our kids some old-school lessons about responsibility.) While the chickens are molting, you will see a huge decrease in weight gains and egg production.
Chicken Triage: Helping Your Chickens Through Their Molt
So far we have learned that the molt is normal, happens once a year, will last between 3-19 weeks, and that egg production and weight gain will pretty much halt until each chicken finishes molting. Whether you raise chickens for eggs or meat, this time period of zero production is a big hit. So are there ways to help speed up the molt? Yes!
To help your chickens molt faster you want to create the ideal living conditions for them so that all of their attention and energy can be funneled into molting. The faster the birds are done, the faster they can get on with growing eggs and muscle for you and your family. Here are some ideas for how to speed up the molt:
Chicken Sweaters, Heat Lamps, Insulation, Oh My!
Since molting happens when the days shorten and the weather gets colder, it is not uncommon for your chickens to be naked and exposed to cold conditions. This is quite bad timing, isn’t it? Not only that, your bare little chickens, who should be expending all of their energy molting and growing new feathers, are now also diverting energy to keep themselves warm, and this can extend the molt.
To combat this divergence of energy we need to keep our chickens warm. This can be accomplished in many different ways. Some people use heat lamps (like these) hung close to the ground so that the chickens can sit under and warm themselves.
Other farmers insulate the coop with chicken coop insulation to keep cold air from getting into their chickens’ living space.You can stuff laying boxes extra full of dry straw and chickens will hunker down in it to keep warm. Still some others go the extra fashionable route and create chicken sweaters for their birds to wear during the molt.
Nutrition During The Molt
The most important way to help your chickens through the molt is to feed them protein-rich food. Protein is the primary nutrient used to grow feathers. If you typically free range your chickens, feed them cracked corn, or table scraps, you will want to add a protein source while your chickens are molting. At most commercial feed stores you can find nutrition facts on feed bags. Choose one that is rich in protein (at least 16%.)
You can also feed chickens small amounts of dried cat food, sunflower seeds, and oats as a way to enhance chickens’ diets during their molt. By increasing protein intake during molt, you are giving your chickens what they need to grow shiny, healthy feathers FAST.
This is definitely a long term approach to your molting problem. In the past, it was not uncommon to cull (strategically kill off,) chickens that had a long molt. The idea was that some chickens took up to 19 weeks to molt, and the farmers did not want to pass that trait to future generations.
Things have changed, and we raise backyard chickens for pets as much as anything else, so do not go culling chickens. BUT you may want to try your hand at your own selective breeding and see if you can shorten the molt time of your flock in the long-term. This involves patience and experimentation, but if you’re reading this, you are a chicken person, which means that you have a gritty, industrious personality and love a good project.
So grab a notebook and pencil! Number your chickens and keep track of how long it takes for each one to molt. Now it’s time for you to get creative. Choose breeding combinations that you think will shorten molt time based on how long it took each chicken to molt. The most important rule of thumb here is do not let a rooster and a hen that both have long molts breed.
Other than that advice, it’s up to you to strategize your flock breeding! Have fun with this, take avid notes, and pay attention to other traits that come from selective breeding like egg production, weight gain, appearance, personality, and so on. This could be an interesting long-term project that would allow you to dip your feet into the world of selective breeding.