In birds, molting is the seasonal process of shedding feathers and regrowing new ones. Feathers are similar to hair or fingernails in both their composition and in the fact that once they are damaged or worn, they can only be replaced by regrowth. Molting allows birds, including chickens, to keep their plumage in good condition and to adjust their plumage to seasonal temperature changes.
How Does Molting Work in Chickens?
To understand molting, you must also understand what it takes to lay an egg. Biologically speaking hens need to be sexually mature females to lay eggs and they need light. Typically, that means they need around 14-16 hours of light at approximately 50 lumens of intensity (which is about the minimum amount of light you need to read the newspaper).
In the conventional commercial world this is pretty easy to do as most hens are raised indoors where you can control the amount of light and the light intensity. However, for backyard birds, which are typically raised outdoors, seasonality matters as there is less daylight in the winter. In addition, latitude, or how far north or south you live from the equator, also matters as this at affects how much light your birds receive.
For example, in the Northern Hemisphere December 21st is the shortest day of the year but the shortness of that day depends on your latitude. So, for example, chickens in a Seattle backyard on December 21st receive approximately 8 hrs of light while backyard chickens in Los Angeles receive 9 hrs of light on that same day.
Because of these latitudinal differences in seasonal daylight hour and the genetics of different birds during the winter, some chickens molt and other keep on laying. If you observe a huge drop off in the number of eggs your backyard birds produce and you see feather loss, your hens are likely molting. Reproductively their egg making machinery (aka the reproductive tract) takes a needed break and regenerates itself. Bu don’t worry! Your birds gradually regrow their feathers over 8-16 weeks.
Supporting Your Birds Through a Molt
While there is some variability due to breed and other factors, molting usually occurs when the days start to shorten in late summer and it can go well into the fall season between 8 and 16 weeks. If you notice molting behavior such as a decrease or a stop in egg production and/or loss of feathers typically starting with the head and neck and then down the back you may want to consider changing your hens’ diet to a higher protein, lower Calcium diet. The high Calcium in a laying diet can cause nutritional disease and mortality if fed continually to molting hens. There are commercial rations that are available that provide this type of diet. Typically, they cut the Calcium percentage in half from around 4% to 2% and increase the crude protein percentage from around 16% to 20%.
By feeding an appropriate diet during molting, you can increase the hens’ ability to regrow/regenerate their feathers and reproductive tract which will decrease the overall mot time. You can add supplemental light to prevent your birds from molting, but this will not allow your birds to go through their natural regrowth/regeneration process. For backyard poultry, the goals of productivity usually take lower priority compared to keeping your birds healthy for their entire life, which can be cut short by reproductive problems as your hens get older. Hence, allowing your BYP to naturally molt is likely a good practice.