Last week, we shared information on the importance of proper brooding management in a poultry enterprise.
This week, we discuss laying hens. A farmer needs to understand flock production capabilities, how to budget for feeds for layers up until the point of lay, when to expect the first eggs, factors that may influence onset of lay, when to expect peak production, duration of lay and how to tell laying birds from those not laying, among others.
As a layer farmer, one has to understand all the variables that may affect egg production.
If you are rearing layers, or you aspire to, then lets journey through this piece together.
The number of eggs from a flock and months in lay depend on among others the following variables: the breed of birds, management of the pullets (young hens) before lay, light management, nutrition and space available for your layers.
The decision of what breed to rear is taken by the farmer and then the hatchery supplies chicks from birds bred for optimum egg production with known potentials.
Flock management determines when and if your hens reach their egg-laying potential.
Management also determines whether the flock production curve fluctuates erratically or follows the established pattern.
It is important to manage pullets correctly particularly in the areas of nutrition, light management and disease control.
At the point of lay, a pullet may weigh about 1.5kg. Birds that start laying before attaining the correct size may be prone to prolapses of the cloaca.
Deworm monthly after 8 weeks. De-beak between 8 and 12 weeks.
De-beaking should be done by qualified personnel. The lower beak should be longer to enable the hen ‘scoop’ feeds.
Success or failure of the layer enterprise will depend, to a large extent, on the management of the pullets.
Unknown to many poultry farmers, light is much more important for the hens than just for sight. Light plays a significant role in poultry reproduction, growth and behaviour.
Light controls sexual maturity in birds. Layers should be given 24 hours of light for the first four weeks. Increasing day-length (light) leads to faster sexual maturity hence earlier lay.
Pullets stimulated to lay before week 17 or 18 may never achieve their lifetime productivity potential. For maximum egg production, 16 hours of light is required at peak lay.
At no time should photoperiod be reduced during lay. A word of caution though: too much light in a layers’ house may lead to vices such as cannibalism, aggression and even egg eating.
This informs the cardinal rule of building a chicken house in an east-west orientation.
The optimal lighting is that which would allow the farmer to read a copy of the ‘Seeds of Gold’ from the darkest corner.
Laying hens require balanced feed to sustain maximum egg production over time.
They require energy, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins. Given that feeds account for over 70 per cent of rearing costs, many farmers attempt shortcuts.
Some give their hens ‘breakfast,’ ‘lunch’ and ‘supper,’ in which case the birds do not get enough feeds, while others add other feed ingredients to commercial feeds.
Again unknown to many, this ‘adulteration’ serves to distort the formulation and eventually, the performance of birds.
Cumulatively, each layer chick consumes about 2kg of chick and duck mash between day old to eight weeks.
One growing pullet consumes about 7kg growers mash cumulatively between 9 and 20 weeks. A layer bird cumulatively consumes about 50kg of mash for her entire optimal laying life of 12 months (about 140g/day).
If a farmer finds that their hens are eating more, it is most likely that they have a lot of spillage (they eat more when it is cold).
Spillage maybe corrected by raising or lowering the feeders so the feed level is the same as the back of the hens.
Water is a critical but often overlooked nutrient. Birds and indeed all animals can survive longer without feed/food than without water.
At normal temperatures, layers consume twice as much water as they consume feeds. During periods of high temperatures, water consumption may double or even quadruple.
For good lay percentages, ensure birds are supplied with adequate quantities and quality water.
Floor space for layers
For optimal performance, each layer requires 2 square feet of space. Incorporate perches on which birds prefer to sleep at night.
The use of perches also helps concentrate manure in single locations making cleaning easier. Moreover, chicken have a desire to perch, so providing for this natural behaviour contributes to animal welfare.
Provide laying nests covered with black polythene; a nest measuring 1ft x 1ft is sufficient for five hens.
The floor should be covered with 4 inches wood shavings to absorb moisture and cushion the birds from the cold floor.
Identification of laying hens
These tend to be smaller, have bright red combs/wattle; additionally, three middle fingers fit between the pubic bones in a laying bird.
Mortality at rearing should not exceed 5 per cent.
Mortality at lay should not be more than 8 per cent.
Age at start of lay is 18 to 20 weeks
Total egg production per hen for her lifetime, about 318 eggs.
Average weekly egg production:
• Week 19 - 6%
• Week 20 - 20%
• Week 21 - 50%
• Week 22 - 78%
• Week 23-43 - 90 - 93%
• Week 44-60 - 80-89%
• Week 61-73 - 70-79%
• Week 73 – 80 - 70 – 65%
Reasons hens stop laying
Normally, a hen would lay between 24 and 27 eggs in a month.
This is because it takes 26 hours for an egg to be formed. Reasons why hens would stop or reduce laying include:
1. Laying for more than 12 months.
2. Change in weather conditions leading to stress.
3. Vaccination, de-beaking and transportation stresses.
4. Disturbances like when removing litter, predators and noises.
5. Rationing feeds.
6. Feeding poor quality feeds.
7. Insufficient fresh, clean drinking water.
8. Exposure to short photoperiod hours of light.
9. Infestation with Internal and/or external parasites.
10. Disease situation.
11. When the birds are laying and eating eggs/deficiencies.
12. When other predators are eating eggs e.g cats, rats, snakes.
The good news is that a farmer can do something to address most of the causes of reduced laying.
-Dr. John Muchibi is a Veterinary Surgeon and the Animal Health Manager at Elgon Kenya. Reach him on +254733715102 or e-mail him through [email protected]