The Ragged Feathers of Summer: 7 causes August 8, 2014

When your day old baby chick feathers in for the first time at 12 weeks old or so with her complete juvenile plumage, there’s almost nothing quite as beautiful. Each feather is shiny and new. And a perfectly-frocked, robin-sized bird that runs to you for affection is more exciting than most of us would care to admit (in public). Those perfect feathers don’t always stay perfect, though. Soon will come the ragged feathers of summer!

ragged feathers of summer, hens and rooster

Ragged feathers? A few, but they’re not too ragged here. You can see feather loss in their beards, and just in front of rooster Francis’ tail.

There are a few common causes of missing or ragged feathers, many of which are more of an issue in the summer. If you’re seeing problems, take a few moments to review what may be happening to see if it needs to be addressed.

7 causes of ragged feathers in summer

(1) Mites, lice, and external parasites are often more active in warmer weather. Such parasites can cause feather loss or breakage from overpreening. You’ll need to deal with lice and mites if they are a problem in your flock.

(2) Internal parasites can be more active as well; nutritional deficiencies  caused by worms are more common in warm weather, too, and this can lead to ragged feather issues, or to feather loss. Deal with worms if your flock is infested.

(3) Having too many roosters in the flock (leading to too-frequent breeding and wear on back feathers) can be more of an issue in summer, too. Obviously, you’re not going to magically have twice as many roosters in osummer than you do at other times of year–it’s not that kind of seasonal issue! However, the breeding behavior of your roosters increases in spring… so by summer time, your hens’ back will have seen a good deal of wear and those ragged feathers could become a problem.

ragged feathers: Black Copper Marans hen

This Black Copper Marans hen has ragged feathers on her back

(4) In addition, if your hen’s diet has been too low in protein, it means your her feathers will not be able to take much wear to begin with. This is often a problem with those who want to spoil their hens with too much scratch, which is quite low in protein. It can also be a particular problem in summer if your hens have access to ripe, windfall fruit or berries from your yard, or if you offer your flock excess zucchini or corn from your garden. Treats are great in moderation, but hens need a high protein diet to maintain feather quality and to lay.

(5) This means also that your best layers will often have worn, broken or ragged feathers; they’re more prone to dedicate nutritional resources to egg production than breeds that lay less well.

(6) Of course, the heat of summer can increase irritability and cause hens to be more prone to pecking one another and picking feathers… in addition, the long hours of bright light, just in itself, can encourage aggressive picking, particularly if your flock doesn’t have sufficient space to forage, or if the run they have is bare of grass.

(7) Finally, late in the summer or early in autumn, molting begins. Molting is when your bird sheds her old feathers to grow new ones, and is, of course, not a health or management issue! It’s a natural part of her cycle. But keep in mind: this period is the most important time to provide a good quality, high protein diet for your flock, as this is when they’ll be growing in their new plumage for the following year.

Want to do your best to avoid ragged feathers next year? Make sure they have sufficient protein and that their feed is nutritionally balanced year round… but particularly during the annual molt.

Pam Kutaka July 11th, 2016

What percentage of a protein should I be feeding. I buy pre-bagged chicken feed, as I assume these are balanced.

Lissa July 13th, 2016

Yes, commercial feed is normally fairly well balanced, and should comprise the majority of your flock’s diet… or if you’re up for the extra time and trouble, you can go the extra mile and mix your own feed. If you go this route, be sure to follow your feed recipe correctly, in order to achieve the right nutrient balance. If you take the time to educate yourself about poultry nutrition, you can really customize your feeding practices to your flock’s needs, use the BEST ingredients, and that can help ensure their health–and the health of their feathers.

For instance, you can provide protein supplementation (or increase the protein in your feed mix) to help your flock during the annual molt. You can increase fat content in the winter to give them extra calories to help maintain their body temperatures during short days when it’s cold and there is less time to eat before it gets dark. You can feed your chickens extra Omega-3s to help increase the Omegas in your eggs (foraging also helps this). The list goes on and on.” if the protein gets too LOW, you can induce an early molt.

Commercial layer feeds tend to provide 15% – 18% protein or thereabouts, depending on brand. Some actually go as high as 20%, while grower ration might be as low as 14% pre-lay (commercial producers want start-of-lay to occur at a specific age when the hens have reached a specific size, because each hen may produce slightly better and slightly larger eggs). The issue for backyarders is that most commercial lay rations are designed for commercial flocks that consist of high-production breeds with no access to forage. But if you have show breeds like Polish in your flock–they are adorable, but justdon’t lay very many eggs in comparison to commercial laying varieties–these low production birds may need less calcium and protein than leghorns because they’re laying so many fewer eggs. And for flocks with access to forage, you are not going to be able to control their protein ration, exactly. Lots of bugs or seeds may increase the protein they consume, and lots of grasses or fruits/veggies will lower it.

Deciding whether to use supplements or not really is a matter of watching your flock. For instance, this year was a 17-year cicada year in my area, and with all the extra protein in the yard, my flock’s feathers are still looking good at this point. Bugs have a lot of protein! But blackberry season is now upon us, and blackberries have very little protein–and my girls love them–so I’ll keep my eyes peeled to see if it may be helpful for me to offer some high-protein treats or supplements.T here really is no ONE best balance for every flock, because conditions vary by location, and needs vary by breed. If there was a single best for every flock, every commercial producer would be using the exact same recipes, right? 🙂

A level of 16% – 18% protein in your base feed is a good average that will work for most mixed flocks with access to pasture, and varying that by a little based on your observations of your flock’s needs should be fine.

Last, do remember to make extreme changes to your flock’s diet gradually. Bumping your chickens from 16 to 18 percent protein in teir base feed, with the same basic feed components, shouldn’t be a problem, for example, nor should it be a problem to provide high protein chicken treats like mealworms in moderation. But if you go from 15% to 22% in your base feed, and use a completely new brand or formula without transitioning (mixing the feeds together for while)–and especially if they have no access to pasture so are not used to any variation in their diet–you can upset their gut flora and cause health problems.

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