Molting, or shedding old feathers to grow in the new, is triggered in your flock by waning sunlight hours, and typically happens in late summer or fall. During this time, your flock will look pretty raggedy, and may slow down or temporarily stop laying while their feathers grow. So how can you help your molting flock?
Nutrition is especially important during this period, no matter which type of molt your birds are going through. During the molt, it's always doubly important to provide sufficient protein in their diet. After all, they're growing their feathers in for the next year, and if they are lacking in nutrition, their feathers could be brittle or dry--until the next molt. During this window, you need to take action.
Here are the top 3 ways you can help your molting flock:
1. SWITCH to a higher protein feed during the molt to help your molting flock.
Check your feed bag: how much protein is in your feed? Layer feed is usually somewhere around 16%. If you can bump that up, it will help your flock, since they need a lot of protein to grow feathers. Gamebird feed is generally higher in protein than regular layer feed, and some "grower" formulas are higher in protein than regular layer feed, too. People who show poultry tend to feed at around 20% protein for sleek, healthy feathers. But be careful! Your hens will still need plenty of calcium, so if you switch them to something other than layer feed, be sure to provide oyster shell free choice---you might even consider scattering it over the new, higher protein feed to make sure they're getting enough for their needs.
2. SUPPLEMENT your feed with high protein treats to help your molting flock.
Mealworms, dried bug blends, or, to a lesser extent, treat squares make great treats. Most layer feed is only around 16% protein, so anything higher than that can help as a supplement. Another high protein supplement some people like to use is, believe it or not, cat food. There's no arguing that a handful or two can give your flock a protein boost... and since chickens are meant to eat grains, there's no need to provide the expensive grain-free kind you might give to your cats (as carnivores, cats don't naturally eat grains like omnivorous chickens do!). Even so, we'd recommend caution. Cat food often contains a lot of salt, too much of which is just not good for your chickens. If you choose to use a supplement NOT balanced for chickens, please use it sparingly---it is a supplement or treat, NOT a complete feed.
3. LIMIT low protein treats during the molt to help your molting flock.
Fruits and veggies make great treats for your birds, generally speaking. And it's wonderful to think that while you're avoiding waste, your birds are enjoying themselves, and those leftovers and scraps are being turned into eggs! But during the molt, fruits and veggies are not always a good idea. Fruits and veggies are low in protein--and at a time when your birds need extra protein to grow their feathers, you want to be especially vigilant to make sure their diet supports their needs.
Seems simple, right? But there can be challenges; the trick is identifying them.
The struggle I face is that we have several fruit trees on our property: plums, cherries, apples and pears. Why is this a problem? Well, normally it's not; in fact, it's the opposite of a problem. It's one of those luxuries I get to engage in every year with meditative joy: fruit, from my own trees, warm from the sun.
A week of pear tarts. Bottles of homemade plum wine. Apple butter. Cherry pie. We also have wild blackberries and raspberries for jams and cobblers. Oh, glory.
And my chickens love these treats just as much as we do, if not more.
But the problem I always face is that pear season seems to coincide with molting every year. In fact, my girls even recognize the sound of a falling pear hitting the ground, so even when they're on the other side of the ridge from the pear tree, when one falls, the sudden thrumming of chicken feet fills the air, and they are ON it. My hearing is not as keen.
But it's all good. While I struggle with the problem of getting to the fallen pears before my chickens do, I'll be eating pear tart and relaxing on the porch swing.
Do you have any special struggles with your flock at this time of year?