Chicken Health

Moulting -Now you see them now you don’t

What is a Moult?

Moulting is an annual phenomenon that begins at approx 18 months and older hens. In reality, she will experience her first full moult in her second Autumn, and then every year after that.

What happens?

Bam! At a time when you think that hens actually need a good feather covering, almost overnight, the coop looks like an explosion in a pillow factory. The girls drop feathers like it’s a drunken pool party in Ibiza. They also renew the scales on their legs too. It can be quite upsetting for people who have not kept hens before, to see how sad they look when they are stripped of their finery. Hens can look like a badly stuffed pillow, really unkempt and un-cared for when this happens. The reverse is true, as they are provided with more protein and are not handled too much to avoid pressing the newly forming quills back into their skin. This is the reality of keeping hens.

The process of creating feathers

Once the feathers start to regrow, the hen will look like a pincushion. The incoming feather shafts are called pin or blood feathers. They are dark and look almost blue. In reality, they are filled with blood which is nourishing the newly forming feathers within the shafts. The pin feathers are very easy to damage and can bleed profusely if broken. Once the feather has finished being created inside its sheath, then the blood supply is no longer needed. The blood is shut off and the sheath begins to flake away. It is made of keratin and will look like dandruff as the hen preens the dried casing to reveal a beautiful new feather.

Other physical changes during the moult

Her comb will shrivel and become pink instead of red. Her face will also go less red than normal. This is in response to the reduction in hormones.

A moulting hen will lose condition, she will look quite dejected if she finds herself at the bottom of the pecking order. Other changes in her body will occur such as reversal of the bleaching phenomenon which removed the colour from legs, skin, and vent areas. Legs, skin and vent will return to the original colour as occurs in a non-laying hen. This is particularly noticeable on yellow skinned and yellow legged birds. The birds legs will return to yellow as the bleaching fades.

Does this affect the pecking order?

When a hen moults, her status within the flock plummets, and hens who were once high up in the pecking order will find themselves struggling to find any peace. They are often in hiding places and are unable to eat when they want. This becomes an ideal opportunity for a lower ranking hen who may not yet be moulting, to triumphantly seize power. Sometimes these once meek hens, turn into little monsters and can really give the shrinking ex-head chickens a really hard time.

In the normal ranking or pecking order the head chicken (always a girl by the way) eats first, then number 2, then number 3 etc. The lowest ranking hens must wait until all the others have eaten and even then must be given permission by those of a higher rank. Such is the life of a lowly hen.

Why do my hens stop laying in winter?

A moulting hen needs good quality protein in her food as protein is the building block of feathers. Egg production also uses a lot of protein, therefore, no eggs will be laid for the duration of the moult. Something has to give, as all the protein has to be diverted to their feathering needs. A full moult can last 8 weeks with some hens taking much longer. The moult coincides with the shortening of days which in itself can trigger a shut-off of the egg-laying hormones. These will normally be reactivated once the days start to lengthen again after Christmas. Lack of eggs seems like a sort of curse for the chicken keeper, but it is a good thing. It gives the hens a well-deserved break from the rigours of laying for a few weeks.

Another reason why it is good for chickens to have a break from laying

Oestrogen during a laying cycle prevents calcium depositing into the fabric of the bones so chickens cannot make new bone while laying. During lay the calcium is deposited into medullary bone material which is constantly mobilised in shell formation. Chickens that never stop laying cannot restock and make new bone which can result in osteoporosis or fragile bones. Another good reason for chickens to take a break.

What is the best food for moulting chickens?

You may hear stories of what to feed your hens while they are moulting. All sorts of codswallop is spouted. Some advocate using growers pellets. Most growers pellets are lower in protein so this is a bad move. It also does not contain calcium. Hens use calcium when they are not laying to strengthen their bones so growers pellets is again a bad move. Yet other people advocate dog or cat food, pilchards, anchovies, and other fishy confections. Upsetting the delicate balance of nutrition is a bad move. Hens need all the help they can get at moulting time.

Keep your hens on layers pellets during the moult as the calcium will help top up her depleted reserves and the additional protein it contains will be beneficial for the feather production. If you must feed random junk to your hens then just feed a handful of hemp seeds. This is high protein and has a good nutritional profile.

Moulting at other times

A mini or partial moult, which is usually a neck moult or a chest moult, can occur due to stress. Stress can be anything from a predator fright, or extremes in the weather, too hot, very wet, very windy. Fireworks, loud banging, DIY, lawn-mowing, dogs, or cats will take their toll. They can feel stress by you wearing the wrong wellies, or any change in the environment or habits. Getting the picture? Chickens are stressy creatures. Stress can depress their immune response and egg laying can also be interrupted or erratic for a while.

Heat stress in Chickens

Heat Stress…Is it a thing?

Heat stress is one of the major factors in illness, death and egg production failures. Chickens can cope very well in temperatures just over zero degrees centigrade, however, adding chickens to heat is a whole new ball game.

Why is a bit of heat a problem?

  • Chickens are covered in their own feather duvet
  • Their natural temperature is 41 degrees C
  • They cannot sweat to cool down

Heat stress can result in collapse, lack of eggs, stress related moult, neurological issues, organ failure, and death. It can happen suddenly which leaves you the keeper wondering why on earth it has happened.

Symptoms of heat stress

The danger period happens once the temperature rises to above 22 degrees C and above. It is worse on days when there is no wind. If you spot any of the symptoms below then you need to act very quickly

  • The birds will start to seek out shade.
  • They will start to hold their wings away from their bodies if they are too hot to lose heat
  • Chickens will start to pant.
  • Slow panting at first, followed by quick panting and throat fluttering as the risk increases.
  • Chickens may start to show neurological symptoms such as throwing their heads back or circling
  • They could go off their legs all of a sudden
  • Egg production will reduce or cease entirely
  • You may see an abnormal amount of feather loss in chickens, usually around the neck or crop area.

Fast panting sets off a dangerous chain reaction. It changes the chemical composition in the body and respiratory system which in turn puts pressure on organs such as the brain and kidneys. Heat stress is cumulative, which means the problems build up over time, getting ever serious.

The Solution to heat stress in chickens

Electrolytes are extremely important to supplement in the water when the temperature gets over 22C which assists the birds with replacing lost vital salts. A poultry supplement such as “Solulyte” which is designed to combat heat stress is essential. It is wise to have this on standby for the summer. I have linked to a website, but there are many suppliers who do the same product with varying sizes etc. Supplementing with Solulyte will save the life and health of your chickens during prolonged heatwave situations. Alternatively you can Google a recipe for poultry electrolytes for a home-made fix. You may need to keep the bird cool and encourage them to drink by dipping their beak. Neurological or collapse symptoms will mean they are confused and may become unresponsive so they need assistance to drink.

Homemade Electrolyte Recipe for chickens

  • 4.5 Litres of water (1 gallon)
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of baking soda/bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 teaspoon of salt (sea salt preferably)
  • Splash of orange juice (optional for vitamin C or crush a vitamin C tablet)

Mix together and then serve to your chickens.

Warning

Don’t use this if there is no danger of heat stress. Chickens will pant when they are heat stressed. YOUR BIRDS SHOULD NOT HAVE SALT OR SUGAR IN THEIR WATER UNDER NORMAL CONDITIONS.

Mud Management

Man rolling in mud

Mud Management for chickens

Mud Mud Glorious Mud as the song goes is something that a lot of chicken keepers end up with. The problem with chickens is that they are the worlds most committed excavators. They will dig and scrape looking for tasty morsels in the ground. If you have some precious plants, or that lovely rose that dear departed Auntie May gave you, then you will need to protect the roots from the attentions of your chickens. Chickens will uproot almost everything they find, apart from nettles and brambles annoyingly. Such is their dedication to extreme garden remodelling.

It’s not all bad

The ground your chickens’ run sits on will become a moonscape of barren earth in a short space of time. They quickly create dust-bathing pot-holes and they fervently dig for insects, worms and other goodies. However, there is a plus side. If you have some ground you need clearing, veg plot, allotment, jungle, greenhouse, then team chicken are the ones to call. Add chickens to any unruly wilderness and you will have ground clearance par excellance. Sit back with your cup of tea and watch diligence in motion.

Why does it turn into mud and why is it a problem?

Chickens’ feet are also great at padding the ground and compacting it despite not being very heavy creatures. The combination of compaction, and lack of greenery means the soil now won’t be able to soak up any water without a bit of help. Surface water creates mud, thick, gooey, welly sucking mud. Mud is great at growing nasty bacteria and other pathogens as pathogens just love moisture. Pathogens make smells to add insult to injury.

So now we have a job description of chicken destruction, we now need to find a solution.

One Solution

So how do you stop mud in a chicken run? You could do some sort of rain dance but this will certainly entertain your neighbours. The top and bottom of it is your run or the chicken area needs to remain dry. Dry earth is less likely to harbour or grow nasties that will harm the health of your chickens. Compacted earth doesn’t allow the rain to soak in so digging the area over will keep the drainage good. It also gives the microbes in the soil some much needed air. Microbes in the soil are your friends, so keep them alive. This in combination with a roof covering is going to make it a winner all round.

If you tackle the mud issue then you will have a nicer area for everyone. No smells, no disease and no slipping in mud.

Voila!

So there we have it!!! Microbes are your friend and chickens will uproot anything that is remotely green, even poisonous plants. Who’da thought it? It didn’t take us long to realise that the chickens had to have their own area, so segregate them. You get your own garden and the chickens can have theirs. That is where sanity lives but because I am a chicken nut our human area is very small because the girls just gotta have fun.

We have much more information on this very topic on our online course and also many more useful nuggets of useful info if you wish to know more

Feather Pecking

Cockerel with feather pecking damage
Example of signs of feather pecking behaviour

Feather pecking is a potentially serious issue in chickens. At best it can look rather scruffy, but at worst it can result in chicken death. Take a look at Peter Pecker in the photo. Notice his cream coloured feathers (his saddle) have v-shaped tips. This is classic feather pecking behaviour. The feather pattern of plucking is known as barbering.

The hens in his flock are being over attentive and because he is a kindly cockerel, he is letting them do it. He sees it as a mutual preening exercise which is a normal type of behaviour in birds. They often preen each other as it cements their bonds, however this can continue to a destructive level. Eventually the barbering gets closer and closer to the skin and if it does not stop then it becomes a feather pecking habit. Chickens will then start to attack the pin or blood feathers as they are starting to poke through the skin. This will draw blood and blood is bad. Chickens then begin to actively hunt feathers especially those of chickens that are lower down the pecking order. They do not know when to stop when they start to draw blood and it can turn fatal.

The reasons behind feather pecking are complex and not well understood. Some people believe that the hens realise they have a deficiency in protein and eat feathers to make up the deficit. Others think it is a boredom or a stress response. In parrots that is surely the reason but is it still the case for chickens? There could be a similarity for sure. Allo preening (bird mutual preening) is a bonding and very natural behaviour so we may be just guessing. It is all too easy to attach human emotions and reasons behind animal behaviour. At the end of the day we can only make assumptions but not know for sure.

One thing is for sure, when the birds are in a moulting period and every bird is in the same state of undress then they actually (mostly) leave each other alone and stop the feather pecking to allow the feathers to re-grow. Maybe it is more to do with the heightened stress of hormone surges during the peak laying and fertility periods of spring and summer.

Chicken Manure Recycling Scheme

We have lots of chicken manure

In fact we have more chicken manure than we can handle. This is the reason we are running a FREE chicken manure recycling scheme.  Chicken manure is perfect for hot composting. In exchange for a stout bag you can take some away for FREE. Check details below for full information

What is chicken manure good for?

Chicken manure is like black gold. It is literally hot stuff. Whilst It is too hot to go onto plants while it is fresh, it will start to heat up a well-turned composting heap and turn it into usable compost that is great for the garden in weeks. It produces very rich compost that will turn any growing area into an oasis.

How the scheme works

Once you have decided to join, all you need to do is to drop off some some bags or containers here at Hedgerow Henporium. Make sure each bag or container is well marked with your name and contact number. If we are not in you can simply leave them by the bins. We will fill them for you and let you know when you can collect again. Prompt collection is appreciated as the longer they remain outside the more soggy they become when it rains. Both you, and our neighbours will benefit from the swift collection enormously.

Sometimes we have loads of bags in our stash and we don’t always need spares. We do appreciate you returning them for re-use though so we can continue to fill them. In this scenario just empty your bags and then put them behind our bins. Undamaged bags are re-used repeatedly.

As you will probably be transporting in your car, make sure that you bring bags that are not going to leak. The manure weighs about 15kg per load so the bags need to be able to take that weight without tearing when they are lifted. Make sure that you line your car with a waterproof cover in case of seepage due to condensation within the bags.

The manure comes from our coops when we clean out. It is fresh and is mixed with their bedding of chopped rape straw. You can have as much or as little as you want. When you want more, just drop your bags off near the bins and we will sort it out for you.

How to do Composting with chicken manure

Good composting is all about making your microbes happy. They require air and a little moisture. Keep the balance right and your heap will heat up quickly. Ours gets to 60 degrees in days. While it is in the heating up phase you will get enough ammonia off it to clear your nostrils and wake the dead if you get too close, but this passes in a day or so. Make sure you stir it regularly while composting to show those microbes where the next tasty morsels are and you are good to go. Once the heat dies down the worms will move in and the rest will just reduce to black gold in a few weeks. If you leave it composting for longer it will get even better.  We don’t add anything else to our heap although you could add cardboard or shredded paper or veggie peelings or grass. Just mix it in and the manure will work its magic. Don’t let your heap get claggy, soggy or compacted is all we recommend.

One of our manure collectors has just delivered a pumpkin to me (he doesn’t eat pumpkin) which is about 80kg. Yes that is right!! an 80kg monster all courtesy of the girls efforts. He has donated it to the hens and they enjoyed it enormously.

The Royal Horticultural Society have a good article on how to compost if you are in need of further information on this wonderful of processes. There is another article on the Well Gardening site on the science behind composting.

Please don’t join if you cannot collect promptly so we don’t annoy our lovely neighbours.

Register your interest via our contact page and then simply drop your bags off. Easy peasy.

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