Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Molt

Soon enough, the long, lazy days of Summer will shorten as we get closer and closer to Autumn. The shorter days have an effect on most all natural cycles. Chickens are no exception. Autumn is the time the hens will go into their annual molt. A molt is a period where the chickens undergo a loss of old feathers and regrowing of new feathers. In chickens, this process is usually about 7 weeks to three months.

If you have not experienced a molt before, I've outlined some highlights of that here along with tips to get through this natural cycle smoothly and without frustration.

Who Molts

A young hen will usually not molt her first year. On rare occasions, a hen may have a "mini" or partial molt in the fall of her first year, especially if she was an early chicken, hatched in Jan-March.  Chickens typically molt at 18-20 months of age and once a year thereafter.

What to Expect

Beginning sometime in the late summer or fall-August through Oct, you will begin to notice a reduction in egg production. You will see lots of feathers in the bedding of the coop and in the run. The hens may become more quiet, not quite as enthusiastic about eating at feeding time, more timid and seem to be suffering from a general malaise. When you pick up a hen to check her condition, you may notice that she is losing feathers on her neck and breast.

Molting Barred Plymouth Rock
All of this is perfectly normal. A chicken can take up to three months to go through a molt, during which time she doesn't typically lay. Some hens will lay on occasion, or pick up laying again once they have a majority of their feathers. Other hens may take the winter off and not resume laying until the following Spring.

Differnt breeds of chickens go into the molt at different times in the fall.  Some breeds molt early and others late.  Don't be surprised if your hens are still growing feathers when the snow flies!


Hens do not lay during the molt, so stock up on those eggs!  Come August 1 in Ohio, stop selling or giving them away and start hording them for yourself. Remember, eggs last 3 months in the frig, so plan accordingly. Once the molt of over, the hens will resume laying, but not as prolifically as before. Many, especially the rare and heritage breeds, do not resume laying until Spring.

Special Needs During the Molt

A chicken needs extra protein in their diet at this time. The extra protein is needed to grow new feathers.  Switch hens to a chick or grower ration--some folks will use game bird or turkey feed during the molt.  Meal worms are especially good for hens right now.  Other protein ideas include live worms, cat food or dog food, meats such as browned hamburger, meat table scraps, boiled mashed eggs, grasshoppers and other insects, quinoa, etc. 

When the Molt of Over

Having had an egg farm, I needed my girls to get back to work asap after their molt vacation. I used artificial lighting to bring them back into production. I kept lights on for 15 hours a day, year round to keep them in production. If you don't care about winter laying, keep them in natural light and you may get eggs here and there through the winter. If you are desiring eggs all winter, I strongly suggest putting lights on your hens after the hens have molted. 15 hours of light is less than the natural maximum of 16 hours and worked well for me. I used automatic timers to turn on lights in the morning and evening to extend the daylight hours to 15. A 40 watt bulb is all you need.

Note two immature feathers
If your hens have clipped wings and you want to keep them clipped, you will have to do this again after the feathers are fully regrown. Clipping the wings before the feathers are fully grown may result in having to do it again.

Forcing the Molt

Most of the commercial egg production farms schedule their hens into molt. You can force a molt by withholding feed and reducing light to 7 hours a day. I never forced a molt, since my philosophy was to stay natural, so I do not have any first hand knowledge of exactly how to do it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Reasons Why You Should Learn How to Home Butcher

I grew up on a small sustainable farm in Indiana. I learned early how the circle of life works on a farm. The values learned there I still hold today. One of them is learning to butcher your own meat animals. I believe that eating meat is a choice, and I firmly believe that if you choose to eat meat, you should go through the process of taking an animal's life and processing it into food at least once. I feel this process is the best way to connect you to your food. I also feel it instills a greater appreciation and reverence for the life of meat animals. If you are unable to take an animals life for food, I strongly suggest that you re-examine your reasons for eating meat.

2silos broilers

Have you thought about what you are going to do with your old hens when they are no longer productive layers? Do you have a culling plan in place for severely injured or diseased chickens? What are you planning to do with what you thought was a large pullet but has turned out to be a rooster? Have you ever considered raising meat chickens for your family? Did you know that one of your biggest expenses in raising meat chickens is processing?

2silos broilers
I feel a home butcher is the kindest way to cull or harvest your chickens. Packing up your chickens and taking them to a small scale poultry processor or Amish family for butchering is a hugely traumatic process for them. They are not in their familiar, secure surroundings and you are nowhere in sight to lend comfort. Your chickens have had a fabulous life at your place, why not let them stay home for their one last day?

Many feel that it's just too much to cull their own chickens or do their own butchering. Some people are squeamish about blood and guts. Others are kind of freaked out about the killing part. True, there is death, blood and guts. That's just part of it. Death is part of the life cycle. The killing part is hard, there's no doubt about it. Especially when it's an old favorite hen who's time has come. But, when you chose to have chickens, you took on the responsibility of their lives and their deaths.  I think it's much better to die an quick intended death than a death from predation, accident, disease or at the hands of strangers.


I am teaching a class on Home Butchering, Saturday, August 10 from 9-12 pm in Columbus, Ohio. Class participants will each receive a live Cornish cross broiler chicken to butcher, clean and take home.  Participants will have the opportunity to choose how to butcher their chicken. If you have an old hen or rooster you wish to butcher, you may bring it.

A local pathology vet instructor, Tracy Papenfuss, will be on-hand to conduct a necropsy on our demo birds for those interested in learning the anatomy of a chicken or those interesting in learning to do their own necropsy.

To find out more or to register, follow the link below. 

Home Butchering Class August 10, 2013

Ready, Set, Lay!

It's nearing time when spring pullet chicks are getting ready to start producing eggs.  The first egg are so exciting since you have been waiting months for this big day! Once your girls reach 16 to 17 weeks, you will begin to notice that they are filling out--they are growing their third set of feathers. Their adult hackle feathers come in and so do lower "dust ruffle" feathers. They get what I call their "girly" curves and they become friendlier towards people and less skittish.

Golden Comet pullets

Make sure you nesting boxes are hung and have fake decoy eggs in place by 17 weeks.  Line the nesting boxes so the hens are nice and cozy in the boxes. We want them to be cozy in the nesting boxes and not cozy on the floor in a corner. Make the nesting boxes as appealing as possible, since this is were you want them to lay. Put a couple golf balls, or wooden eggs in the nesting boxes to encourage them to lay in the box.  Hens like to lay eggs in clutches, so they gravitate toward nests  that already have eggs.

Salmon Faverolle pullets

Your hens will also start to submit to you. When a hen submits, she will stop and squat, putting folded wings slightly out to her sides. This is the submissive pose she gives the rooster when he comes around to breed. I usually scoop up the hen when she submits to me and use the opportunity to do a quick inspection. 

The beginning small eggs are called "pullet eggs" since they are laid by pullets. Expect unusual eggs to be found at the onset of laying.  Small eggs, no yolk eggs, no shell eggs, double yolk eggs, long narrow eggs, eggs inside of eggs (yes, this can happen) are all normal. These are all edible, so enjoy!  The Amish prefer the small pullet eggs since they have a lighter more mild taste than regular chicken eggs. After about 6 weeks of laying, the hen regulates her cycle and the eggs gradually become larger.

Two regular sized eggs and one Welsummer pullet egg

pullet egg, regular egg and double yolk green egg

soft shell pullet egg
At the point of lay, you may lose a pullet. I usually had 1%-2% loss at this time. Typically it occurs if a pullet's reproductive organs have not developed properly or a pullet becomes egg bound. Keep an eye on your girls during these beginning stages of laying. It's fun to try to figure out who is laying and which types of eggs they are laying. If a hen lays a speckled eggs, she will probably always lay a speckled egg. Take a chair into the coop during laying time and watch who goes into the nest to determine who is laying which eggs. It's interesting to watch the egg laying process.

Enjoy your chickens!