So far in this series of articles we have looked at the origins of the modern brown laying hen, and the consequences of running these birds in commercial, pastured production environments. To conclude this series, we will explore a number of different options and techniques to optimise the welfare outcomes for the modern brown egg layer in a pastured operation, and at the same time assist producers in maintaining and hopefully improving profitability and sustainability.
I chose two separate titles for this third instalment because both are equally true, and both need to be embraced to effectively manage these birds under pastured conditions. “Living with the monster” refers to the fact that these birds have been “created” (bred) for a specific purpose, just like Frankenstein’s monster. And just like that monster, there are consequences for letting it out of the lab (or the cage). Producers need to keep this reality at the forefront of their minds as they develop business plans and operating strategies for their farms. “Square pegs in round holes” is an allusion to the fact that running these birds on pasture is an inherently contradictory process and will require the application of compromise and enlightened reason to ensure viability.
It is at this point that I need to advise my readers that I am not about to provide you with a range of silver bullets and magic incantations to overcome this monster. On the contrary, I am about to share a range of skills, knowledge and techniques that require attention to detail and discipline to effectively initiate and maintain. Let’s go!!
Start at the beginning – understanding the importance of the baby chick.
Very few people involved in this industry have been exposed to the absolutely critical nature of early chick management and its impact on the productive capacity of the laying hen. Do you remember the catch phrase I shared with you earlier – “Modern laying hens are little more than a life-support system for a reproductive tract”? For that life support system to operate at peak efficiency, a strong, healthy and well-developed gut must be established to support many of the other physiological and metabolic functions of the bird, and the crucial period for gut development is the first 5 to 7 days of life. The process of achieving the optimal development actually starts with the parent hen that laid the egg from which your laying pullet was hatched. The mother can impact on the chick in a number of ways, including transmitting certain diseases through the egg (known as “vertical transmission”), laying a small egg due to age or nutrition or laying an egg that does not contain a full complement of critical nutrients for the develop of the chick embryo. For this reason, it is very important that your chicks, whether you rear them yourselves or not, come from a reputable and accountable hatchery. The onus is on the producer to ensure that this is the case for their birds.
Once the baby chicks arrive on site, they require the highest level of care and management to ensure optimal growth. Environment, water and feed must be controlled with absolute precision, particularly during the first 7 – 10 days. Bodyweights of the chicks must be monitored closely to ensure they are growing and developing at an appropriate rate. The birds should be weighed weekly as a minimum throughout their life, and accurate records maintained. If you purchase your pullets from a supplier, you should receive their bodyweight profile chart with the birds. I would be wary of any supplier unable to provide this fundamental management document.
On the subject of accurate and current production data; there have been many times over the years where clients have protested to me that they were operating a simple egg farm, and that all the records and weights they I recommend are simply too complicated for their basic operation. My response has always been this – when you buy a Ferrari (or high-performance laying bird), it requires the very best fuel, expensive tyres and regular, costly services conducted by highly qualified mechanics. The same can be said for these birds; as a high performance “machine” they require very careful and informed management, which includes the very best “fuel”. Failure to manage these birds at this level can only lead to sub-standard growth, and diminished productive capacity.
During the rearing period, the birds will normally require vaccination, and this needs to be conducted at the appropriate time following the manufacturers recommendations. If you purchase your pullets at point of lay, your supplier must provide you with a vaccination history document; and if you rear them yourself you must be confident that your vaccination programme is comprehensive and effective. It is important to note that more vaccinations do not necessarily lead to healthier birds, and careful consideration needs to be given to the specific disease risks of your site. During the growing period the frame of the bird is developed, and a range of behaviours are developed and many of these become lifelong habits. A well-known and particularly troublesome example is the habit of roosting or perching. Many started pullets are reared in large sheds where they have no outdoor access. They spend the first 16 weeks of life in these sheds, and never see a perch. When they are delivered to the customer, that customer finds they have an entire batch of birds that don’t know how to perch, and often spend their first nights in their new home camped under the shed. There are so many negative repercussions of this situation, including high mortalities due to smothering and a predisposition to laying “ground” or “floor eggs”. What I find most frustrating that this is a totally avoidable situation, but little or nothing seems to be done to address the problem.
It is my experience that growing pullets between the ages of 6 and 16 weeks often experience a certain level of neglect, as they no longer require artificial heat to keep them alive, and they are not producing any eggs that require daily collection. For this reason, they receive little attention beyond a daily walk through the sheds to pick up dead birds and ensure the feed and water systems are functional. Many pullet rearing operations use a relatively low specification grower food to save costs on “non-productive” birds. These situations can lead to birds that are “flighty” when they are delivered to the producer due to their lack of exposure to people; and/or birds that are underweight at delivery – a situation that can lead to many problems as the birds come into production. As mentioned earlier in this section, the operation rearing your pullets should be able to provide you with a complete bodyweight history, from day old to delivery. It is very important that you weigh as many birds as practical at the time of delivery to ensure that you have a reference point for your future records, and to check that the information provided by the pullet grower is accurate.
It is during the growing period that pullets may undergo a “hot-blade” “beak trim”, with a range of physical outcomes and repercussions. It is further proof of the “freakish” nature of these types of birds that beak trimming is advocated as “best practice” by the breeding companies, particularly when one considers that the primary purpose for performing this “operation” is to combat feather pecking and cannibalism. There are very clear guidelines for the beak trimming, yet I continue to see birds with too much beak removed, which can lead to an inability or reluctance to eat.
If you are a producer that rears your own pullets from day old, you can ensure that you manage your birds properly during this growing phase by providing appropriate housing and nutrition, coupled with collection of accurate bodyweight data that is plotted against the breeder’s standard. Try and spend time with your birds, get them used to the sound of your voice and your movements through the shed. I have found that a radio playing constantly in the brood/rearing shed is a good way of de-sensitising the birds to voices and noises.
As a last word on rearing pullets, I suggest that all growers and producers familiarise themselves with the various management guides. While these documents contain information that is not necessarily relevant to pastured producers, they do contain a wealth of information, as well as many practical guides and graphs. Please see the links below:
“Peak” production is that time in the birds laying cycle when she has the highest rate of lay, known as hen/day production. With most strains this occurs around 7 weeks after the onset of lay (which should start at 17 weeks) and have the genetic potential to achieve 90+% hen/day production by 24 weeks. I have included a generic “hen day performance graph” below to illustrate these facts, and also demonstrate the way in which egg production diminishes as the bird ages. Please take note of the rapid increase in the rate of lay once production commences and consider for a moment the implications of this phenomenon on the birds’ tiny system.
Hen day production graph – courtesy eXtension.org
Earlier in this series I discussed the crowding and vocalising behaviour of brown egg layers, particularly after the onset of egg laying, and we looked at the causes and some outcomes related to this behaviour. It is important to note that this is arguably the most influential period in the bird’s productive life, with the exception of the first week of life, and can impact a range of performance issues – sometimes with devastating and costly outcomes. It is important to remember that birds of this pre-peak age are the most valuable birds on the site, not only in terms of the money invested in them to date, but also in terms of their productive potential. Mortalities at this age should be avoided at all reasonable cost.
In terms of management strategies at this age, there are many things a producer can do to prevent or reduce losses of birds and production, with arguably the most important being providing appropriate nutrition that supports the rapid increase in egg production, meets all the additional “maintenance” needs of the bird at this time and provides for an upward trend in bodyweight throughout this period. Once peak production has been achieved, and egg production starts to decline, the ration can be adjusted accordingly. As mentioned earlier, the only effective means to accurately determine body weight profiles is to weigh the birds on a weekly basis. As a rule of thumb, 17-week-old pullets should weigh around 1.7 kgs, increasing to around 2.0 kgs by 24 weeks. Producers should aim for a consistent increase in bodyweight during this period, even if it the increase is a modest 20 grams in one week. It is very important to note that while a limited increase in weight every week is desirable, there is a danger of affecting production and the potential for prolapse if the birds are permitted to put on too much weight, depositing fat in the body cavity around the reproductive tract. I hasten to add, that after nearly 20 years of consultancy, and observing and handling many thousands of pastured birds, I have yet to see pullets at this age put on too much weight. Without exception, the consistent observation is that of pullets that struggle to maintain weight, and generally start to lose weight once production has exceeded 50%.
In concluding this section on pre-peak, I must add that the issues raised above are not the only critical factors that must be addressed at this time. Training for perching and nesting, controlling ground or floor eggs and strategies for photo-stimulation are just some of these critical factors, and require careful and informed consideration, more than I can provide within the constraints of this particular topic.
Once egg production has reached its zenith, there is a normal and natural decline in hen day production, as demonstrated in the graph above. It would be nice to think that things will now be a little easier given the diminishing demand for nutrients, however this may not necessarily be the case. Depending on the way in which the birds were reared, and how well they were managed through peak production; there is the potential for a severe decline in general bird health, egg production and egg quality.
Probably the most common issue with post-peak birds in a rapid decline in egg shell quality and intensity of shell colour (assuming the use of “brown” laying strains). There are a number of factors that can contribute to this situation, including inappropriate nutrition (including water supply), internal parasite burden – (particularly tapeworm, which is a problem for pastured birds because of the indirect lifecycle of the parasite, and the complete lack of an appropriate control measure), and compromised gut integrity. And of these three, I believe that gut integrity is the most significant of all. Harking back to my comments regarding the “life support system”, it must be understood that for any nutrient to be effectively used by the bird, it must pass across a cell wall to enter the system of the bird. If the cell wall is compromised in any way (poor development due to substandard rearing conditions, disease (particularly coccidiosis), internal parasites or deterioration during the peak lay period), then the bird’s ability to draw nourishment from their food is diminished.
Many producers will acknowledge a decline in shell quality with age. Often times a lack of calcium in the diet is suspected, but many operations provide their birds with ad lib calcium (shell or limestone grit), so this is probably not the cause. One definite contributing factor is egg size, as the bird assigns or “partitions” the same amount of calcium for every egg she lays. This means that pullet eggs generally have thick shells, because the calcium has a smaller area to cover. As the egg size increases, the shell thickness must necessarily decrease because no additional calcium is partitioned for the increased size. This normal and anticipated reduction in shell thickness is magnified when gut integrity/health is compromised.
So, how can all of this be applied in a practical and profitable way by the pastured egg producer? The most important thing is to “be aware” and understand what you are dealing with. Acknowledge the apparent conflict between genetics and production environment and take appropriate steps to circumvent issues before they manifest themselves. Gain greater control of pullet rearing/quality and expect the best from your pullet supplier.