I began wondering if our happy hens were sick, had a parasite problem, were missing something vital from their diet, etc... At first only a couple girls were missing feathers and I suspected that they were being picked on by the H.C.I.C.'s of our flock. However, once some of the girls at the top of the pecking order started looking just like those at the bottom, I began frantically researching for an answer. After being in borderline obsessive research mode for awhile, I realized we were facing our first molt. Because of their young age and the fact that they are still laying well, I believe our girls are experiencing a partial head/neck/tail feather molt.
To give the girls some added energy and the boost of protein they'll need to replenish the feathers they've shed, we've added some soybean meal to their regular layer ration as well as a free-choice tub of Armour lard for them to enjoy.
Here's some helpful, accurate information I found on PoultryPassion.com about molting.
Each year chickens molt, or lose the older feathers, and grow new ones. Most hens stop producing eggs until after the molt is completed. The rate of lay for some hens may not be affected, but their molting time is longer. Hens referred to as “late molters” will lay for 12 to 14 months before molting, while others, referred to as “early molters,” may begin to molt after only a few months in production. Late molters are generally the better laying hens and will have a more ragged and tattered covering of feathers. The early molters are generally poorer layers and have a smoother, better-groomed appearance.
Early molters drop only a few feathers at a time and may take as long as four to six months to complete the molt. Early molters are usually poor producers in a flock. Late molting hens will produce longer before molting and will shed the feathers quicker (two to three months). The advantage of late molters is that the loss of feathers and their replacement takes place at the same time. This enables the hen to return to full production sooner.
The order in which birds lose their feathers is fairly definite. The feathers are lost from the head first, followed in order by those on the neck, breast, body, wings, and tail. A definite order of molting is also seen within each molting section, such as the loss of primary flight feathers before secondary flight feathers on the wings.
The primary wing feathers determine whether a hen is an early or late molter. These large, stiff flight feathers are observed on the outer part of each wing when the wing is spread. Usually 10 primary feathers on each wing are separated from the smaller secondary feathers by a short axial feather.
Molting birds lose the primary feathers in regular order, beginning with the feather nearest the axial feather and progressing to the outer wing-tip feathers. Late molting hens will lose primary feathers in groups of two or more feathers, whereas early molters lose feathers individually. Replacement feathers begin to grow shortly after the old feathers are shed. Late molting birds can be distinguished by groups of replacement feathers showing similar stages of growth.
Estimating Duration of Molt
The time a bird has been molting can be determined by examination of the large primary wing feathers. Length of molt can be estimated by allowing six weeks for the first mature group of primaries and two weeks for each additional feather or group of feathers. If the primary feathers are not fully grown, the time of molt can be estimated based on the feathers’ present stage of growth.
A primary feather reaches half its full length after two weeks, two-thirds its growth after three weeks, and completes its growth six weeks after the old primary is lost. The growth rate of the replacement feathers is the same for both early and late molting hens.
Often pullets undergo a partial molt, involving the neck and tail feathers. This condition can usually be eliminated by purchasing pullets hatched in April or later in each year and by following proper management practices. The length and incidence of a molt are influenced considerably by the bird’s body weight, physical condition and environmental conditions such as nutrition and management.