by Kelly Klober
The fruit of the hen is one of the great staples of the human diet and is one of the major pillars of the local foods movement. Based on the many questions I have received, one of the great challenges now is how to put available poultry genetics to use for best possible results.
Every hen needs to produce just two fertile eggs each year to maintain her lineage. Beyond that point, factors such as breeding, nutrition and bird comfort and well-being will determine the productivity of the birds.
Right or wrong, the natural foods movement and the modern poultry-keeping renaissance have come to be very heavily reliant upon the brown-shelled egg and the birds that produce it. Brown egg shell color can range from terra-cotta and deep, chocolate brown to a very pale brown hue. They are largely produced by breeds and crosses that were developed to be either meat birds or multi-use birds producing some eggs and meat from birds with a moderate growth rate.
Early in the last century, extensive work went into developing more productive strains within many of the brown egg laying breeds, but most of that ended with World War II. Since then, most poultry breeding has been along the lines of hybridization or to amend breed type to produce an industrialized bird for the colony house and the laying plant. They will look the part, but they aren’t what they once were and may even be coasting along on performance data derived from birds from that earlier era.
The larger-framed, heavier-bodied brown egg layers were never meant to compete on par as egg layers with breeds like the Leghorn. They are larger-framed, slower to develop, will consume more feed while growing, and to maintain condition, will need more housing and nest space. They will also produce fewer eggs per hen. The larger size can give them an element of durability that may be lacking in birds with higher metabolisms, even some brown egg laying hybrids.
The brown egg laying hybrids often have a rather rapid burnout factor, and many flocks are turned after but a single season of laying. And, sadly, their smaller size and the wear and tear of that time in production tends to leave them with very little salvage value. The better laying lines of purebred brown egg layers tend to come from the plain vanilla breeds such as the White Plymouth Rock, Australorp and the single comb Rhode Island White.
With concerted programs of selective breeding, flocks of these breeds can be made steadily more productive. A quite modest flock of closely bred females can produce the replacement pullet chicks for even quite large laying flocks. Such a venture then becomes truly sustainable as the most important of all inputs, the seedstock, comes from the farm.
This venture will hinge upon identifying the most productive females and their male offspring and then using them to create a line that will perform on the home farm which is exactly like no other.
The Hogan method has been taught for decades as a tool to evaluate the layer potential of young stock and the continuing performance of birds in production. It is fairly easily taught, but does require that each bird be taken in hand. The laying flock should be worked at regular intervals to remove poor performers and ill and injured birds, and to ascertain that the valuable feedstuffs are going only to those birds that are most fully and profitably utilizing them.
The egg producer now needs to get as serious about breed choice and performance improvement as the producer of fine Hereford cattle or blooded horses. If your flock is rooster-heavy, filled with hens past their second year of lay, has at least one of every breed in the big hatchery catalog, and the only culling is being done by the raccoons and foxes, you are seeing some of the answers to your laying performance questions.
To build upon the key elements of sustainability and predictable performance the good egg producer must become a good poultry breeder. 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? Well, it is still a lot less expensive than the going price for even the most commonplace feeder calf.
Successful, profitable egg production begins and ends with the hen, her breeding and her care.
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.
Individually, they 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. And to that end, the producer should be doing the recordkeeping and performance monitoring needed to determine the actual pounds of feed fed to produce each dozen of eggs.
Of late, some rather exotic poultry ration formulations have been bantered about and many reasons given for them. The feeding of some may be a condition of a particular market outlet, but that market must then pay a sufficient premium to offset the added costs of such feedstuffs. Some can be quite costly to formulate; some of their components might not be readily available, and specially formulated rations may have to be bought in lots no smaller than 1 to 3 tons. The old rule of thumb is that to be able to afford the on-farm equipment needed for feed processing, you will have to produce a minimum of 100 tons feed yearly.
Steady improvements in poultry ration quality have marked the modern livestock producing era. The knowledge of nutrients that make better rations was often applied first to rations for baby chicks and laying hens. Now we see some of the major feed suppliers offering all-vegetable blends of poultry feeds, feeds with bolstered levels of omega-3, and rations fortified with components such as kelp and fish meal.
A few key aspects of poultry nutrition include:
- Begin with a high-quality chick starter purchased in amounts to ensure the freshness of supply. Most starter/growers are now meant to be fed until the young pullets produce their first eggs. They are doing a twofold task of developing frame and an egg tract and need a high-quality ration to do so. After those first eggs appear, the young females should be gradually shifted over to a quality laying ration. As a very early starter feed some are going back to the old practice of offering finely chopped, hard-boiled eggs to the 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 will work especially well for chicks that have had a hard time in shipment or 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 in a small or mini-pellet will help reduce feed wastage. The birds are better able to retrieve pelleted feedstuffs when they are flipped from the feeder.
- Buying feedstuffs at roughly two-week intervals, if possible, is one way to safeguard ration freshness and to even out feed 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 including needed minerals and grit. Though the offering of oyster shell was once widely prescribed, it was often set out in forms too large for the birds to adequately use.
- Many old hands provide grit simply by dumping creek sand into low-sided wooden boxes made accessible to the birds. Cherry granite grit of the appropriate size is a clean grit product available at a reasonable cost.
- Scratch grain is not needed in many feeding programs now. Birds will 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 offer it at the end of the day to bring them back into the house before closing it for the night. Such a feeding of grain will give the birds an added boost of warming energy going into a winter night.
- Feedstuffs and seedstock are never areas for cutting costs.
You cannot wring many eggs out of elderly hens and those bred for other purposes, but too many are still supplying rather costly feedstuffs to birds that cannot make good use of them.
Increasing egg output begins with practices as simple as supplying the birds with fresh and clean drinking water and feedstuffs. It continues with each producer gaining the experience to know which birds to replace, when to replace them and having developed the better birds with which to replace them.
DEALING WITH STRESS
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. Likewise, hard cold snaps of even short duration can 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 a few months of each other.
Veteran producers have a bit of a bag of tricks into which they can dip when their birds are in need of a bit of a boost.
1. A boost in protein levels can often be helpful during these times. Some will top-dress hens’ regular laying ration 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 crude protein.
2. A bit of green feed can be offered in the form of leafy legume hay fed from a simple mesh feeder suspended just above the birds’ heads. Stalks of one of the greens crops such as collards can be suspended above the birds in a similar manner. This practice works well in cold and damp weather and gives birds kept in the house 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 bird fertility. I had a vo-ag teacher that 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.
3. Get a vitamin/electrolyte product into the drinking water and keep it in use during periods of stress.
4. There are a number of appetite-stimulating/tonicing products that can be added to drinking water. This can range from simple concoctions of red pepper or garlic or oregano to a wide array of commercial booster products.
5. Make sure that the birds are free of performance-robbing parasite loads. Just arriving on the scene from abroad are wormers that can be used while the birds are in lay with no need to discard the eggs.
6. Another trick even older than me is to drizzle a couple of ribbons of wheat germ or cod liver oil atop the laying ration in cold weather a couple of times each week.
Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, and Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken available from Acres U.S.A. For more information visit www.acresusa.com or call 800-355-5313.
This article appears in the August 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.