Chickens molt annually, which is to say they loose their old feathers and grow new. This coincides with the changing seasons and shortened daylight hours, and typically occurs in the fall or early winter. Actually, they molt a couple of times from hatching to becoming chickens, but the most noticeable molt for me hit our flock this fall when our hens were approximately 1.5 years of age.
It is at about that age that chickens experience their first mature molt and quit laying eggs. From our high of 27 dozen eggs last July, we dwindled down to just 7 dozen in the month of November. Because growing feathers takes such a great amount of energy and protein, during the molt many chickens quit laying, or laying becomes very sporadic. To make matters worse, the long dark nights of winter also cause chickens to reduce egg laying, molting or not.
It also seems that this is about the time many chickens meet their end. At about 18 months old a young hen is fully grown, the meat is tender and not yet tough, and she is about to quit laying. It is at this point when you have to decide if you are going to keep feeding an animal that is not producing, or if you are going to butcher and raise new chicks in the spring. From a livestock producer's view point the choice is clear, however from the backyard chicken keepers perspective the decision is a tough one. While we do intend to raise meat birds "someday" it was clear from early on, these birds were not going in the stew pot.
You might remember from earlier blog posts that I had hoped our chicken flock would be self supporting. They should "pay their way" I reasoned, and up until this point they had - more or less. We sell our eggs to friends and the proceeds buy the feed. By supplementing with kitchen scraps and plenty of yard foraging, we had managed to keep the monthly feed bill fairly low. Until the molt. This fall we struggled to meet our weekly egg orders, and finally in November just had to tell our customers that "the hens are taking some time off". There were times when I thought we were suckers for continuing to feed chickens that had no intent to lay. I worried if they'd ever lay again. I was nearly convinced that we were going to be stuck with hens that merely wandered around eating ever more expensive feed until they died of old age.
But at last it seems we've all survived the molt.
Last week for the first time in what seemed like forever, we collected 5 dozen eggs. Our daily production has been ramping up for a while now, but I have been skeptical until recently. Only now do I truly believe that we are through. Through the molt, through the winter and back in business.
Spring is a time of new life and new energy. For our hens it is also time for them to get back to work!
|Silver Laced Wyandottes resting on the dog house.|
For more information on the molt and how to get through it check out this article by: