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senior chickens

Molting, Broody & Senior Chickens

Even the hardest-working hens will eventually need a little break. That break often occurs when your hen starts molting, or shedding its old feathers and growing new ones. This typically happens in the chicken’s 2nd year, in fall or winter when the days get short. Although the mess of feathers in the coop may look alarming, this is a perfectly natural process that gives her reproductive system a much-needed rest. The molting process will take 2-6 months, depending on the hen, and there is really nothing you can do to hurry it along. Think of it as her vacation time. 

Because regrowing feathers takes as much (or more) protein as laying eggs, hens typically do not produce eggs while they are molting. Feathers are up to 85% protein, so transition back to a grower feed formulation to feed your molting chickens a higher level of protein. Avoid handling them, as their new pin feathers are particularly sensitive. And make sure they have a dust bath available to help rid themselves of old feathers and skin.

Broody hens will also stop laying – these are chickens that have gotten it into their heads that it’s time to hatch the eggs they have instead of laying more. A broody hen will stay in a nesting box on her eggs (or other chickens’ eggs) to insulate them, leaving only once a day for food and water. If there is a good chance the eggs are fertilized and you want her to try to hatch more baby chicks, move the hen and her clutch of eggs to a separate location with food and water, and let her be broody.

If, however, you do not have a rooster or do not want more baby chicks and want to “break up” a hen’s broody behavior, try to disturb her as often as possible to get her out of the nest box, even moving her to a separate location if you can. Or try placing something uncomfortable, like ice cubes, in the nesting box while she is out of it. Collecting eggs frequently can also help prevent broody behavior before it even starts.

Finally, a chicken will stop laying due to age. Peak egg production lasts for about two to three years, and then starts to decline until about age five. When you start seeing thin-shelled and misshapen eggs, you know your hen is about to retire from egg laying altogether. But with most breeds of chickens living to age 7 or beyond, you’ve got a lot more time to enjoy the companionship of the hen that has served you and your family so well. At this point, care and feeding is all about health and comfort of your senior chicken.

As with humans, senior chickens can start having mobility problems due to arthritis or joint inflammation. Building lower and wider perches or adding a ramp to the coop can make things a little easier for a hen that’s having trouble getting around. You may even want to move your older chickens to a separate coop to prevent younger, more aggressive hens from pecking their elders. Health is always a concern, too. Senior chickens’ immune systems start to slow down, so good sanitation takes on added importance to prevent respiratory and intestinal illnesses.

After your hen has stopped laying, switch back to a higher protein feed to help maintain muscle and consider a formula with added probiotics to maintain gut health. Grower feeds perfectly fit this nutritional bill, so you can think of it as your chicken’s nutrition coming full circle.