The annual moult is one of the more perplexing aspects of keeping hens. Your hen is in peak condition, glossy feathers and red comb one minute then almost overnight she starts to drop her feathers. Some hens drop lots of feathers (a hard moult) while others have a partial moult (soft moult).
The important thing to say at the outset is that moulting is a natural process and does not mean that your hen has a skin disease or parasites. It is a necessary process to allow your hen to exchange any broken or loose feathers for new plumage to ensure she has good feather coverage when she needs it.
Most first adult moults happens at around 18 months of age, usually in the autumn, but some hens do buck the trend and moult in the summer – even more baffling. It normally takes 8-12 weeks, but can sometimes last longer.
The shortening daylight hours are usually a trigger and some hens moult at the end of an egg laying cycle. Other triggers include stress, hatching eggs, lack of water and changes in the coop.
Where feathers have been lost new pin feathers will emerge giving the appearance of a hedgehog to our already tatty girls. These pin feathers do taste nice and may be plucked out by other hens in your flock.
We can help our hens through the process with extra protein and calcium in their diets (feathers are 80% protein). Switching to a higher protein feed will help. Layers pellets normally contain 16% protein whereas broiler feed tends to be 20-25%. Don’t be surprised if your moulting hen goes off lay or her egg production drops. She simply can’t produce enough protein for both processes.
Colder weather will also speed up the process of new feathers growing back in.