Winter for Hens – No Eggs, No Feathers

You brought home your first batch of little spring chicks a year and a half ago.  They’ve grown up into beautiful hens, each with a distinct personality, and each providing you with delicious, nutritious eggs like clockwork.  Right about now you’re asking yourself, “where are my eggs?” and “why are my hens going bald?!”

molting hen
a hen’s annual molt can start as early as late summer

Not laying eggs and losing feathers are two things that go hand in hand during fall and winter, and are totally normal.  If you notice this happening during spring or summer, that is not normal and could indicate a health issue.

As days get shorter and nights get longer, adult chickens will undergo their yearly molt.  Molting is the process of shedding old feathers and growing new ones.  It’s just like when a dog or a horse sheds out their coat, just with feathers!  The shorter daylight hours trigger this process.

Each chicken molts differently.  While some birds may only lose a few feathers and it’s hardly noticeable, other birds lose almost everything and are walking around practically naked!  Feathers usually shed starting from the neck and then move down the body.  Fluffier hens like Orpingtons tend to lose much of their underfluff feathers, giving them a deflated appearance.

molting hen
each hen molts differently, some worse than others

Unlike when a dog or horse sheds its coat, growing new feathers can be uncomfortable and quite painful for birds.  New feathers first emerge as pin feathers.   These look a lot like quills or the shaft of a feather.  They are narrow cylinders encased in a plastic looking tissue, and they also have a blood supply.  If a pin feather is damaged, the bird will bleed heavily, even from a teeny tiny cut.  If your bird has a damaged pin feather, it is best to pluck it out from the base to quickly stop the bleeding.

pin feathers
new feathers covered by a waxy casing

As the new feathers become ready to unfurl, the blood supply recedes, the casing falls away, and the feather is revealed.  You might notice that as your birds age, their new feathers vary slightly from the previous year.  A splash might be splashier, a blue might be deeper blue, a buff might be more gold, and so on.

While your hens are molting, their egg production will drop significantly, or even stop completely.  The reason for this is two-fold.  Hens require at least 14 hours of daylight to produce eggs regularly.  Less daylight in the fall and winter means less eggs.  Also, growing new feathers is hard work!  While your birds are molting, their bodies are using maximum nutrients and energy to replace old feathers.  This diverts their bodies’ resources away from producing eggs.  From your chicken’s point of view, feathers are more important than eggs!

You can help your birds by feeding them a little extra protein while they’re molting.  This can come in the form of treats – mealworms, scrambled eggs, fish, packaged chicken treats – or in the form of a high protein lay feed.

molting chicken
Molting is a normal part of chicken life, but it can still be stressful on a bird.

Your chickens will have completed their molt within 8 to 12 weeks, and they’ll have a set of beautiful brand new feathers.  They won’t return to laying eggs right away.  You might not be filling up your egg basket until spring!  As the days get longer and your hens are seeing 14+ hours of light, they’ll return to their regular egg laying schedule.

Feeding Your Juvenile Chickens

Did you hatch some baby chicks this spring or summer?  By autumn, they’ve reached an age where they can be considered young adults – hopefully young ladies if you’re looking for eggs!  If you have an existing flock, they should be able to join the group.   It’s also about time to switch their diet from their chick feed to an adult layer feed.

a juvenile pullet

A chicken layer feed is a diet consisting of moderate protein and all the nutrients hens need to stay healthy and lay eggs.  The key difference between a layer feed and other types of poultry feed, like scratch, is the amount of calcium.  Hens require quite a bit of this mineral, because egg shells are primarily composed of calcium.  Calcium makes up about 94% of a shell!

 

A hen will use all the available calcium in her body to produce strong egg shells.  Laying an egg just about every day means calcium is constantly leaving a hen’s body.  That makes it necessary to ensure there’s adequate calcium going in to her body via her feed.   This will help you make sure she remains in good health.

A diet with insufficient calcium will cause a hen to lay eggs with weak shells, or without any shell at all.  These are commonly referred to as “rubber eggs,” and although they might be an interesting coop find, they are an indicator that your hen’s health is compromised.  Parts of her body that are calcium rich, like her bones and beak, will be weakened and become brittle.

Any commercially prepared layer feed will already contain the right amount of calcium that your egg-laying hens require.  Some chicken keepers also like to have crushed oyster shells available for their hens to peck at free-choice.  Chickens are remarkable when it comes to seeking out the exact nutrients they are needing, and will snack on the oyster shell only when they are needing a little calcium boost.

Also try to limit the amount of supplemental treats you give your hens.  If a hen fills up on kitchen scraps, she will not eat enough layer feed to supply her with adequate calcium.

chickens eating, lay feeds

If you have a mixed flock, and are wondering “If lay feeds are made for hens, what should I feed my roosters?”  The answer is that your roosters can eat the lay feeds too.

For more information on chicken layer feed, visit the Poultry Products section of our website here.