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Cow Comfort: Alleviating Stress for Improved Production

As I listened to Tom and Sally Brown, organic dairy farmers from Groton, New York, describe their struggle with Johne’s, I was reminded of what Dr. Ann Wells, D.V.M., from Arkansas says about cattle stress and its relation to health. This makes so much common sense — not just for Johne’s, but for most diseases and production/reproduction problems: Stress is a major contributor to disease in animals.

When doing farm calls, Wells likes to first observe the cows from a distance in a pasture or in the barn, keeping close track of which ani­mals are not with the rest of the group or who are acting “differently.”

As she walks toward the group, she notices which animals don’t readily get up or act in a predictable manner. She feels that those outliers can be to be early indications of sub-clinical problems, and can help alert a farmer to where management changes are needed.

She then analyzes the body condition of each animal, noticing body fat, hair quality and other factors, which can indicate low-grade conditions. Even noting which animals have the most flies around them is important — flies seem to bother weakened animals more than strong animals.

Sudden or acute stress is often much less of a problem to animals than chronic or periodic stress which can seriously depress the immune system. While it is often easy to detect the causes of acute stress — calving, disease, sud­den changes in temperature, it is often more difficult to notice chronic stress because it comes on gradually.

Some common causes of chronic stress in­clude nutritional inadequacy, lack of suf­ficient clean water, mycotoxins in feed, mud or ice, stray voltage, lack of ample bedding or other discomfort in stalls, and internal parasites.

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Eggs: Tips to Boost Production

boost egg production

Fresh eggs at an outdoor market in New York City.

The humble egg is one of the great staples of the human diet and a major pillar of the local food movement. Modern industrial farms have taken measures to increase egg production rates that go far beyond what we in the eco-agriculture movement would consider normal or humane. But even ecologically-conscious egg producers, whether at the commercial or homestead level, can implement measures to safely increase laying rates. The three most important  factors for increasing the productions of eggs are breeding, nutrition, and bird comfort and well-being.

Brown Eggs: The Foundation of the Natural Food Movement

Before discussing these three factors, we should mention a few words on the egg that, rightly or wrongly, has become key to the natural food movement: the brown egg.

Brown eggs can range in color from terra cotta and deep, chocolate brown to a very pale tan. Internally, of course, they are inherently no different from white eggs. Taste and nutritional value vary by almost exclusively by how the hens are raised.

Brown eggs are largely produced by breeds and crosses that were developed to be either meat or multi-use birds. Early in the last century, extensive work went into boosting the production of many brown egg laying breeds. Since World War II, though, most poultry breeding has utilized hybridization to produce an industrialized bird for the colony house and the laying plant. These hens look the part, but they aren’t what they once were, and may even be coasting along on performance data derived from birds of that earlier era.

The larger-framed, heavier-bodied brown egg hens were never meant to compete as layers with white egg breeds such as the Leghorn. They are larger-framed, slower to develop, consume more feed while growing, and need more housing and nest space to maintain condition. They also produce fewer eggs per hen. Their larger size can give them an element of durability that may be lacking in birds with higher metabolisms, among whom are even some brown egg hybrids.

The brown egg laying hybrids often have a rather rapid burnout factor, and many flocks are turned after just a single season of laying. Sadly, their smaller size and the wear and tear of heavy production tends to leave them with very little salvage value. The better laying lines of purebred brown egg layers tend to come from plain vanilla breeds such as the White Plymouth Rock, the Australorp, and the single comb Rhode Island White.

Boosting Egg Production with Breeding

Breeders can steadily make flocks of these traditional brown egg laying breeds more productive. A modest flock of closely-bred females can produce replacement pullet chicks for quite large laying flocks. Such a venture is truly sustainable because the most important input, the seed stock, comes from the original farm. It hinges upon identifying the most productive females and their male offspring and using these birds to create a line that performs uniquely on the home farm.

Boosting egg production with breeding

Boosting egg production begins with good breeding.

The Hogan method has been taught for decades as a tool to evaluate the layer potential of young stock and the continuing performance of production birds. It is a fairly easy method to teach, but is relatively labor-intensive, requiring each bird to be evaluated by hand. The laying flock should be worked at regular intervals to remove poor performers and ill or injured birds. This ensures that valuable feedstuffs are only going to those birds that are most fully and profitably utilizing them.

The egg producer needs to be as serious about breed choice and performance improvement as the producer of fine Hereford cattle or blooded horses. If your flock is rooster-heavy, is filled with hens past their second year of laying, has at least one of every breed in the big hatchery catalog, or if the only culling is done by raccoons and foxes… the answers to your laying performance questions are being answered before your eyes! To become sustainable and to build predictable performance, the good egg producer must become a good poultry breeder.

A note on ordering chicks: Good foundation stock does not come cheap, and better-bred pullet chicks may now cost $7 each or more. Of late, I have seen many trios of adult breeding birds (one male and two females) priced at $75 to $100 or more. For chickens? Yes – just try to keep in mind that this is still a lot less expensive than the going price for even the most commonplace feeder calf.

Boosting Egg Production with Feed

Good feed is the fuel from which eggs are produced, and a thoughtful plan of nutrition is essential for chickens at all stages of development.

Boosting egg production with feed

Never cut corners when it comes to layer feed.

Hens individually consume rather minute amounts of feed daily, and their rations must be nutrient-dense and consistent in form. Depending on her size and breeding, a hen at lay will consume between 4 and 8 ounces of feed daily. Those concerned with paring feed costs should thus begin with birds that will produce eggs in a truly feed-efficient manner. To that end, the producer must keep goods records so she can determine the actual amount of feed used to produce a dozen eggs.

Some rather exotic poultry ration formulations have been bantered about of late. These regimens may be appropriate for a few particular markets with customers that can afford to pay a sufficient premium to offset the added costs of such feedstuffs. Some can be quite costly to formulate. Components might not be readily available, and specially-designed rations may have to be bought in lots as small as one to three tons. The old rule of thumb is that, in order to be able to afford the on-farm equipment needed for processing, a grower has to produce a minimum of 100 tons of feed yearly.

Steady improvements in poultry ration quality have marked the modern livestock era. Advances in the understanding of nutrients were often applied first to rations for baby chicks and laying hens. Today we see some of the major feed suppliers offering all-vegetable blends of poultry feeds, feeds with bolstered levels of omega-3s, and rations fortified with components such as kelp and fish meal.

Here are a few key aspects of poultry nutrition:

  • Begin with a high-quality chick starter, purchased in small amounts to ensure the freshness of supply. Most starter/grower rations today are meant to be fed until the young pullets produce their first eggs. These high-quality feeds perform the twofold task of developing both the frame and the egg tract. After the first eggs appear, the young females should be gradually shifted to a quality laying ration. Some farmers are going back to the old practice of offering finely chopped hard-boiled eggs to their chicks several times each day. For wholesomeness, offer no more finely chopped egg than the chicks will clean up in 20 minutes or so at each feeding. This works especially well for chicks that have had a hard time in shipment or have otherwise been stressed. Within a short time they should be shifted over to a complete starter ration that is fed free-choice.
  • Laying rations formulated as small or mini pellets will help reduce feed wastage. Birds are better able to retrieve feedstuffs that they flip from the feeder if the feed is pelleted.
  • Buying feedstuffs at roughly two-week intervals, if possible, is one way to safeguard ration freshness and to even out costs over the course of a year.
  • Once home, all feedstuffs should be protected from vermin and dampness. A 55-gallon barrel will hold a bit over 300 pounds of most feed types.
  • Most complete poultry feeds are now fully supplemented and include needed minerals and grit. Though the offering of oyster shell was once widely prescribed, it was often sold in forms too large for chickens to adequately use.
  • Many old hands provide grit simply by dumping creek sand into low-sided wooden boxes that are accessible to the birds. Cherry granite grit of the appropriate size is a clean grit product and is available at a reasonable cost.
  • Scratch grain is not needed in many feeding programs today. Birds prefer it to the complete feeds that bolster egg-laying performance, and egg output may decline if too much grain is consumed. It may be best to provide no more grain than the birds will consume in 20 minutes or so, and to offer it at the end of the day to bring them back into the coop. This gives the birds an added boost of warming energy going into a winter night.
  • You can’t wring many eggs out of elderly hens or those bred for other purposes, but too many farmers still supply rather costly feedstuffs to birds that cannot make good use of them.
  • Feedstuffs and seed stock are never areas for cutting costs.Increasing egg output begins with practices as simple as supplying the birds with fresh and clean drinking water and feedstuffs. It continues with producers gaining the experience to know which birds to replace, knowing when to replace them, and developing better replacement birds.

Stress Can Slow Egg Production

Stress can slow egg production

Reduce as much stress from your hens as you can.

Seasonal stresses can affect egg production. Producers in the Southwest have long known that extended periods of wind and heat can send egg production into a nosedive. Hard, cold snaps of even short duration can similarly send egg numbers downward. Here in Missouri, we have the good fortune to often get long spells of deep cold and harsh summer heat within just a few months of each other.

Veteran producers have a bag of tricks to dip into when their birds are in need of a bit of a boost:

  • An increase of protein can often be helpful during these stressful times. Some farmers top-dress hens’ regular feed with a bit of gamebird breeding ration that is substantially higher in crude protein content. I prefer a laying ration that is 18 to 20 percent crude protein. This is much higher than many generic laying mashes that top out at 16 percent.
  • A bit of green feed can be offered in the form of leafy legume hay fed from a simple mesh feeder that is suspended just above the birds’ heads. Stalks of a green crop such as collards can be suspended above the birds in a similar manner. This practice works well in cold and damp weather and gives cooped-up birds a way to work off some energy. A flake or two of alfalfa hay offered every couple of days will also help maintain good yolk color and boost fertility. I had a vo-ag teacher who held that there wasn’t a ton of livestock feed anywhere that could not be made better by the simple addition of a bale of good alfalfa hay.
  • Include a vitamin/electrolyte product in the drinking water during periods of stress.
  • There are a number of appetite-stimulating/tonic-type products that producers can add to drinking water. These can range from simple concoctions of red pepper, garlic, and oregano to a wide array of commercial booster products.
  • Make sure that birds are free of performance-robbing parasite loads. Just arriving on the scene from oversees are wormers that can be used while the birds are in lay with no need to discard the eggs.
  • Another cold weather trick even older than me is drizzling a few ribbons of wheat germ or cod liver oil atop the laying ration several times each week.

Successful, profitable egg production begins and ends with the hen’s breeding, feeding, and care. I hope the tips in this article will help you sustainably and economically increase laying rates, no matter what scale you’re at.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking ChickenDirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken. All are available from Acres U.S.A. For more information visit www.acresusa.com or call 800-355-5313.

This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.