I had gotten some excellent advice from comments responding to my post about feather-picking. I had already switched over from grower to layer feed, which offers more trace nutrients. I had a bag of poultry conditioner which I began adding to their scratch. We fed them more black oil sunflower seeds – BOSS – which are high in protein. Also, my husband and I made a point of giving them apples and cabbage whenever they would be confined to the run for an extended period of time. The additional fiber can also help with picking. Feathers were regrowing, but some new feathers were being plucked again.
A revelation came in the mail with this month’s Backyard Poultry magazine. In Gail Damerow’s article “Where Did Those Feathers Go?” she explains that feeding too much scratch grain lowers the ratio of protein to starch in the birds’ diet, creating a lack of protein which can lead to feather-picking. That was it. I could smack myself because I did already know that but just hadn’t seen it. I had read that chickens needed more corn-based scratch in winter on very cold days to help them maintain their body temperature. So, on mornings where the temperature still hung below freezing when I rose, I gave the chickens extra scratch in an attempt to help keep them warm. That was my fatal error: In winter, when they were least able to rustle up extra protein for themselves in the form of bugs and such, I threw off the balance even further by increasing my use of scratch grain.
What a rookie mistake. Ah, well, live and learn.
The moment I read this, I drastically reduced the scratch they were getting. I went from about a cup and a quarter per day among 11 birds (about 1.8 tablespoons each) to about 1/3 of a cup (about 1/2 T. each). We are continuing with the cabbages, apples, BOSS, and poultry conditioner. It is working – Penelope and Olive are regrowing their beards, although they will get a bit fluffier still.
Yet, Lazzie still has reddened patches of bare skin around his face. For other reasons, I decided to remove both cocks from the main pen to the small pen. While he is there, I am also giving him cat food (mine is 38% protein) to help him regrow his feathers. (I didn’t want to feed that to everyone because I don’t want cat food in my eggs.) I will also monitor the picked feathers: If they are still being picked, it must be the Silver Ameraucana cockerel doing it. If not, it will give the feathers a chance to grow in without being picked, which I think will reduce the chance of them being picked again. Apparently, feathers are more tempting to pickers when they are growing in because they are blood-filled and contain protein and fiber. If the hens are picking him, perhaps it is exacerbated by their lower height and thus increased proximity to his throat and the stubs of new feathers.
I would also like to increase the depth of the litter in their run for better scratching in the mornings, put some soluble vitamins in their water, and try some Farmer’s Helper supplements. (Did you know that Farmer’s Helper is owned by BYC member Resolution? She often has good threads on poultry nutrition.)
In the meantime, so far, so good. Feathers are growing and I am down to only one bird with missing feathers. I have learned a few valuable lessons, and next winter I will be just this much wiser.