Musings on Molting...what really causes a chicken to molt?

Discussion in 'Chicken Behaviors and Egglaying' started by Lady of McCamley, Nov 29, 2013.

  1. Lady of McCamley

    Lady of McCamley Overrun With Chickens

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    I don't know if I exactly have a question here or not amid my scattered observations...if I do I guess I would ask "so what REALLY causes a chicken to molt?"

    I know that molting is the periodic regrowth of feathers and a time for rejuvenation of a bird's system and is crucial for rebuilding the body for egg laying. The standard advice is that the first major adult molt most often occurs at 18 months, and the older hens will then molt annually. But that is not what I am personally experiencing. I'm seeing a far greater variation with the exception that fall comes...they molt...and don't lay eggs....or is it just some falls?

    I have my hens on good quality layer feed, water with ACV (raw with mother), periodically wormed (meds 2x/year; herbals inbetween), and fed good quality scratch that does not equal more than 10 to 20% of their total feed. During fall/winter I have them on 20% protein layer....summer 16% protein layer....fall/winter scratch includes lots of good BOSS and some crack corn and millet (which they love). They free range on 1/3 acre for 17 hens (my main layer flock...doesn't include babies in brooding hutch).

    Over the years I have followed old timers advice and try to keep half my flock in younger pullets and half in older hens to take advantage of larger eggs and abundant eggs and to avoid all of them molting in the fall to attempt to have more even laying through the winter months without lighting (since we've decided not to go to the expense to add proper lighting to the coop at this time as burned one down with the extension cord/light...proper wiring not in the budget right now.)

    I use the formula of keeping twice as many birds as eggs needed for winter lay since I typically see 1/2 production during the winter months. I don't live in hard winters but constant NW Oregon rain, rain, rain and grey with occasional cold spells where it will hover below freezing all day (likely in the 20's for a week or so).

    However, I am seeing more molting...and less eggs... than I expected. I have personally observed the following with molting:
    One year, a set of April chicks, after just coming into laying in August, molted their first fall and did not really start laying well again until spring....okay, made a point to hatch/buy earlier

    So my next set were purchased in February, and those 6 to 7 month old pullets didn't molt their first fall but laid well through winter. (No food or flock management differences).

    Okay, thinking I've got this figured out, I hatch chicks in February and June and purchase 6 month old birds in March so that I would have only half of my flocking in the heavy molt, a few just coming into lay and not productive til spring (June chicks), but then a few who should be 6 to 7 months old and laying well (February chicks)....however...

    My 18 month to 2 year old hens are molting hard this fall...as expected (GSL's and Welsummer)....AND...
    My hens purchased March for winter layers are now 1 years old and molting hard and not laying. (Delawares and Wyandottes) AND
    My chicks hatched in February are now 9 months old...1 is molting and not laying; 1 is not molting and laying. (Barnyard layer mutts)

    My June hatchlings are just coming into laying age and not really laying...as expected...so I'm only sporadically getting some baby eggs from them (Barnyard layer mutts again with some EE/gamebird mix).

    Of my 17 hens that are of age to lay...I am getting maybe 2 eggs....if I am lucky 3...some days only 1...and I can see which hens are doing it as they are the only ones with full glossy feathers...2 BSL, 1 Wellie/RIR mix and 1 Mutt....interestingly of those 4 birds, 3 went broody in June (hatched those chicks for me) and molted hard after brooding and are laying well now...the only reason I am getting any eggs.

    Okay...back to my pondering/musing/question.....
    Given the same care, feed, etc.

    Why the difference in molting?

    Is it like caterpillars and moss on trees predicting a hard winter? Do chickens go into a hard molt before hard winters?

    Does molting just vary? Some years they all do?

    Breed driven? (All my breeds are, and I've got a lot of different ones)

    Or is molting caused by different factors I am not aware of?

    I have done nothing to force a molt....no placing them in darkness, no withdrawal of food or water. They get the best care I can give.

    The only other factor might be IB went through my flock in May but they recovered and laid well through summer. ( I'm pretty sure one of the pullets purchased as a 6 month old brought it in)...could that be the difference such that I am seeing a flock wide molt? (all the birds would have been exposed except the June hatchlings and my September EE's which I am not including in this as they are still babies.)

    Thanks for any input about your observations and experiences. I'd like to use it to continue to manipulate my flock so that I only have half of them molting and not laying while the other half lay well through the winter.
    Lady of McCamley
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2013
  2. BorneHomestead

    BorneHomestead Chillin' With My Peeps

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    I find it interesting that you have ones younger than a year that are doing a full molt, which makes me wonder if it is truly a molt or maybe just feather loss from a rooster or parasites. I will say I have some that were 14 months old that molted and should have laid through the winter, I believe they did it due to it becoming cold quickly (I live in Western Washington on the Peninsula).

    Is it possible to post picture of the younger ones (less than a year old) that you believe are molting?
     
  3. Whoops

    Whoops Chillin' With My Peeps

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    I have been wondering about all of this as well. My coop has looked like a feather pillow exploded for a while now, but my chickens are 4 and half months old. I assumed it was some sort of juvenile growing into real feathers stuff. They were just starting to look like real chickens when a dog attack happened and one lost a patch of feathers. Now, she seems to be molting, feathers all over the coop, pin feathers coming in in the patch where she lost feathers. If you drew a line down her back from head to tail; half would be sleek, lovely feathers and half molt with scraggly feathers coming out and new feathers coming in.
     
  4. BorneHomestead

    BorneHomestead Chillin' With My Peeps

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    chickens go through a series of "mini molts" and then an annual molt. A pullet goes through one complete and three partial moults during its growth to point of lay. Generally, complete molting occurs from 1-6 weeks of age, and partial molting at 7-9 weeks, 12-16 weeks and 20-22 weeks, and then around 16-18 months they will start their full annual molt.

    so it sounds like they are doing a mini molt
     
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  5. Lady of McCamley

    Lady of McCamley Overrun With Chickens

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    I don't think it is parasites....That was the first thing I checked and didn't see any signs and I'm pretty sure I'd pick up the signs...but good point. I will check again just in case I missed something. I do know one hen who is molting the hardest has a tiny bit of scaly mites on one leg which I am treating with vaseline...I've thoroughly cleaned and treated the coop with Poultry Dust just to be sure...and no one else is showing any signs that I see....but again good point...I will double check.

    It really looks like molts...granted the older ones are doing the full hard molt with the one BR down to pin cushion stage, but the younger ones a more soft molt.

    I think it is probably all just normal and you bring up a good point...maybe some weather inducement??? We too went from warm to really cold pretty fast. (That's what happens here...somebody pulls the switch and "winter" happens.)

    I think maybe I've just happened to hit the partial molts and full molts at the same time likely kicked off by the weather turn. (????)
    Thanks for the reminder of the time line of molts...that would make sense then.

    Lady of McCamley

    EDITED: I will add photos if I get some time. I think the under year are soft molts with those at 13 months medium molts with only those who are 18 months and older going through truly hard molts. (One gal...my goodness...she looks literally like a pin cushion with all those new quills...poor thing.)
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2013
  6. Whoops

    Whoops Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Thank you for that explanation! I kept reading that chickens go through "a juvenile molt" but mine were like the energizer molters, molting over and over, and I didn't know if I was missing some vital aspect of their care or something.
     
  7. Happy Chooks

    Happy Chooks Moderator Staff Member

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    Molting is a hormonal change within the chicken combined with shorter daylight hours. Just like you can't predict broodiness in a flock, you cannot predict molting - other than the general time of the year it occurs from the shorter days. Since each chicken is an individual, it will not happen at the same time for each chicken - just like humans don't follow a set pattern in maturity, aging, etc.

    Other factors like weather, stress, predation, illness and parasites can also affect molting and how quickly they get back to laying.

    I have some in my flock that are just about done molting, some that are mid molt, and some that have not started yet. Their bodies determine when it is time. I have over 40 hens/pullets in my flock and I'm getting 3 eggs a day. Some of my pullets that hatched early in the year are also molting. Some of my other pullets have not started laying yet.
     
  8. Lady of McCamley

    Lady of McCamley Overrun With Chickens

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    Well...it just sounds like my situation....some older hard molting, some younger soft molting, youngest not laying yet....I had worked hard to try to stagger the ages to keep eggs at a premium in a natural setting....oh well....back to the drawing board on that one.

    Lady of McCamley
     

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