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Helping your chooks through the moult

25-Jun-2013 | Contributed by: Niki Morrell

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Moulting chicken

Few animals look more miserable than moulting chooks. Every autumn, they’re transformed from proud, beautiful birds into scrawny creatures with plumage as tattered as their dignity. They usually stop laying as well.

Moulting fact file

• It’s generally accepted that poor layers start moulting early and can take up to six or seven months to complete the process. Good layers tend to moult later and over a shorter period of time (six to twelve weeks), so they’re often the ragged-looking baldies.

• Older chooks take longer to moult.

• Some of the commercial hybrid breeds (Brown Shavers, Hylines, etc.) will moult one feather at a time and keep laying, although the egg production will drop off with age.

• Stress, heat or lack of clean drinking water can cause moulting at other times.

• Feathers are high in nitrogen, so make great additions to your compost heap.

What you can do

Moulting and the accompanying drop in egg production are natural processes designed to give the bird a rest. Commercial egg operations often circumvent this by housing their hens indoors and under lights to simulate longer daylight hours. This keeps them laying. If you don’t have the desire or resources to do this, there are ways to help your girls get through the moult quickly and resume their egg laying with glossy new feathers and dignity restored.

Supply extra protein:

Feathers, like hair and fingernails, need lots of protein to grow. If your chooks free-range, they’ll supplement their feed with insects. If they’re not free to roam, you can give them pet food, mincemeat or fish meal to increase their protein intake. Milk can be useful, too. Or, if you have rodent issues, feed your girls the contents of your rat and mice traps. Just don’t stick around to watch – it’s not pretty.

Supply extra carbs:

Chooks have to work harder to keep warm during the moult, particularly if they’re baldies. Give them extra carbs in the form of whole grains: wheat (also contains protein) and corn. Feed late afternoon so they have energy to warm themselves through the night. If your girls aren’t used to whole grains, start them off slowly. These grains take an effort to grind up and chook gizzards need time to adjust. Make sure there are adequate supplies of grit and don’t overfeed grains or your girls will get fat.

Keep dust baths dry:

Moulting hens still need to dust bathe, so keep the area where they do this sheltered and dry. Wet, muddy, half-naked chooks won’t thrive.

Winter-hardy heritage breeds:

Many heritage chook varieties don’t lay at all in winter, especially bantams. However, there are some breeds with a reputation for delivering in the colder months. Australorps, Faverolles, Langshans and Sussex are available in New Zealand and are considered good performers. This will obviously depend to some extent on their genetics, how they’re housed, what they’re fed and just how cold it actually gets.

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