Chickens - Things to do this Month - September
CHICKENS (Laying Hens):
For most of us, the breeding season is now at its end, and it’s time to use the remaining fine days to ensure our hens are fit and healthy ready for the cooler days to come.
Signs of good health:
- Full, bright and velvety ‘headgear’ (comb & wattles)
- Full, round and bright eyes, not sunken or cloudy
- Dry nostrils
- Good, smooth feathering with a shiny appearance
- Clean, fluffy feathers around the vent
- Neither thin or over-fat
- Steady respiration, no panting or wheezing
- Active, moving freely
- Laying well, and producing regular, perfect eggs
The Annual Moult
Each year chickens will change their feathers; this is called the ‘annual moult’ and usually happens during the months of August and September for spring-hatched chickens, and perhaps not until October for those hatched in the autumn. Some hens will moult at other times of the year, and this is often a sign of stress, poor nutrition or an underlying health problem. A good layer tends to loose more of her feathers in a shorter timescale than a fat bird who produces fewer eggs. The moult is important to the chicken, as having strong plumage helps enable them to withstand harsh winter conditions.
A young hen in good condition will usually complete the moult in about six weeks, whereas an older bird, or one who is over or underweight, may take as long as three months during which her health will be under par. The heavier breeds, such as the Sussex or Rhode Island Red tend to take longer to complete their moult than the lighter breeds.
The moult is a stressful time for birds, and for the owner it usually means a temporary halt to egg laying. Therefore, it’s generally believed that the sooner it’s over and done with and the chickens can re-feather, the better. This means you won’t have bare birds during the cold winter months!
Often, the hens will just start by loosing a few feathers. At this stage you can help to accelerate the process by cutting back on both the quantity (by up to a half) and the protein content of their feed. For example, if they are on a layer’s ration, substitute up to half of this with plain oats, which are lower in protein. Then, when the hens are in full moult, feathers are falling like autumn leaves and you can see the new feathers starting to come through, increase the quantity and quality of their feed: they will need first-class rations, including lots of greens (lettuce, cabbage, kale, etc. – these all contain vitamins and minerals) to help them grow strong new feathers. You can also add a little cod-liver oil to a proprietary layers mash, or add linseed and hempseed – these oils and oilseeds are high in calories.
Once the hens are fully re-feathered, return them to their usual rations, otherwise they may become overfat, which is as unhealthy for chickens as it is for us!
- To help your hens recover as quickly as possible after the moult, add a little Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) to the hen’s water as a ‘tonic’ and to aid digestion. Add 2ml of ACV (use a syringe to measure accurately) to 1 litre of water in a plastic drinker (it will corrode metal). Always offer untreated water in another container in case any of the hens won’t drink the treated water.
- The stress of their moult may also reduce their acquired resistance to internal parasites, so this is a good time to carry out a faecal egg count (FEC) to determine the parasite burden of your hens – your vet will explain how to collect a sample and will arrange for it to be tested in a laboratory, the result will indicate whether you need to use a worming product on your hens. Alternatively, you can use the excellent postal service provided by www.westgatelabs.co.uk/home-zone/news.htm
- If you like ‘natural remedies’, also offer the hens some garlic granules mixed with their layer or corn: garlic can act as a repellent to harmful gut worms, but don’t rely on it totally. Best practice is to carry out regular FECs (4x per year would be about right)
- Try to rest at least part of their run for a few weeks on a rotation basis – this will help break the parasite life cycle
If you’re just starting out with hens and can’t decide which breed will suit you best, have a look at our Guide to Chicken Breeds. If you decide to get a mix of different breeds, it’s best to choose those that are roughly the same size to prevent the smaller ones getting hen-pecked.
For more information on keeping chickens and increasing your flock, visit our Basic Principles of Rearing and Management of Chickens.