by Guest Blogger Lisa Steele from Fresh Eggs Daily

Starting in the early fall, you might have begun noticing lots of feathers in your run and panicked, fearing a predator attack, but most likely, your chickens are merely going through their annual molt. This is the process during which the old, dirty, broken feathers are replaced with new ones, leaving your chickens better equipped to handle the winter cold with a set of clean, fluffy feathers. Triggered by shorter fall days, the first molt occurs at about 18 months old, and then annually after that.

Molting always follows the same pattern, starting at the head and neck, then traveling down the body to the tail. However each hen is different as to how quickly she molts. Some hens, usually the better layers, molt extremely quickly, losing large patches of feathers. They might continue to lay through the beginning of the process, but generally stop once the molt reaches their backs. These fast molters are often done in a few weeks and get right back to laying. Other hens, generally poorer layers, molt more slowly. You might not even notice they are molting, since the process happens so gradually, and can take several months.

Regardless of the speed at which your hens molt, they all benefit from added protein during this period, since feathers are 80-90% protein. Good sources of protein include eggs, meat scraps, cooked fish and meal-worms. Many herbs also contain high levels of protein and can be fed either fresh or dried. Some of these include basil, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel, marjoram, parsley, spearmint and tarragon. Other plant-based proteins include alfalfa, broccoli, cauliflower, cooked lentils, mung bean sprouts, oats, unsalted peanuts and spinach.

Molting is uncomfortable for chickens and the new feather quills can bleed as they push out the old ones, so try to minimize the handling of your hens during this period. They may also be withdrawn and less active since growing new feathers takes much of their energy and nutrients. Don’t despair at the sight of your moth-eaten flock though, because once they are done molting, they will be sporting gorgeous, new, glossy feathers – and their eggs will be larger as well.