I am proud of my hens this spring, and happy that I think I discovered what has improved their condition so much. This is my first try at poultry, and though I did my best to educate myself, I made some mistakes. We built a nice coop, 3 years ago, but I did not realize that hens can get bored and when they do, they get into trouble: they started picking at each other and pulling feathers.
I thought of nutritional deficiencies, had the vet come out, who thought it might be parasites and when she was stumped, she asked a colleague who was a poultry expert. His recommendation was to let the hens have the run of the ranch. This came to a halt when a coyote made off with a Rhode Island Red right in front of my desk window.
But I took the hint and we enlarged the chicken yard by fencing in a piece more than double their original yard. It's not that we don't have room around the house ... Still, some of the hens were still getting terrorized by others (another lesson learned: do not mix a flock of smaller and larger hens, as big ones beat up on smaller ones).
I did notice last summer that when given a choice, the hens would pick out the whole oats from the scratch that they get as a snack, and I read that oats were a good protein in the summer as it would help to keep them cooler. No problem increasing the oat ration as the horses get a cup a day as a snack as well. I made oats about 1/4 of the scratch mixture, and so increased their regular protein intake.
Last fall when time came to molt, the hens who had suffered the most (black Astralorps) were starting to feather out nicely, and they learned from each other that if they spent the night in the nesting boxes, rather than on the roost with the other hens, they were less likely to get picked at. Apparently new, blood-filled, quills are irresistible delicacies to the other hens.
Between the larger yard, the extra protein from the oats, and the temporary, private, roosting cubbies, I now have beautiful hens that are laying as if there is no tomorrow. Getting scratch is still a highlight of their day. Here are Goldie and Mathilda (Auracanas) getting some first dibs, while Isabella (Barred Plymouth Rock) is about to nail Dan to tell him not give preferential treatment, and "let go of that grain!".