The first few days of a laying bird’s life are critical in determining how that bird performs for the remainder of the laying cycle.
“Emphasis is placed on reducing bird stress levels,” says Charles Macleod, general manager at Humphrey Pullets. “Same day delivery of newly hatched chicks is standard practice across all of our rearing sites. It helps the chicks quickly adapt to their new environment and we ensure that food and water are instantly accessible.”
Forward planning and close communication between hatching and rearing businesses is essential, adds Peter Cumbers from hatchery Joice and Hill. “We can store eggs and determine when we want those eggs to hatch. As a general rule, we won’t store eggs for more than 10 days before setting as this can reduce hatchability and chick quality. Once the fertilised eggs are set in the incubator they will hatch 21 days later, meaning we can schedule delivery to the rearing farm.
“The eggs are from parent stock which are 24 weeks of age or over and we always set eggs that are 53g or more. Our forecast is to sell 40% of eggs set to the rearing farm as grade A females, taking into account that almost half of all birds hatched are cockerels and a small percentage are infertile – eggs that are set, but don’t hatch.
“Orders mainly come from specialist rearing companies, such as Humphrey Pullets, though occasionally we will deal directly with farmers who rear their own birds.”
Following hatching the new chicks are vaccinated for Marek’s disease and infra-red beak treated at the hatchery, before being loaded on to a lorry for delivery to the rearing farm.
In order to reduce stress, conditions on the rearing farm are optimised to match the chick’s needs, says Mr Mcleod. “In the first few hours following hatching, the energy and hydration requirements of the chick continue to come purely from what they have gained while being in the egg. New chicks still have a certain amount of yolk sac to feed off, but in order to metabolise this they need water. If a chick’s energy reserves drop past a certain point they will become more docile and not actively seek food or water, and it’s then that mortality risk rises. It’s therefore vital to provide easy access to feed and ambient temperature water as quickly as possible following delivery.
“We view rearing as a 20-week cycle. The chicks arrive at day-old and are delivered to the laying farm, usually at around 16 weeks of age; it then takes four weeks to turn the house around including manure removal, cleaning, disinfecting, testing for salmonella, fumigating and setting up for the next flock. All heating, water and feeding systems are serviced, clean shavings are then laid on the floor of the house, which is pre-heated in preparation for the new arrivals.”
As soon as the chicks are delivered to the rearing farm they are vaccinated while still in the boxes used for transportation. The boxes are laid out and chicks vaccinated against coccidiosis and infectious bronchitis via a spray that contains a blue dye to check that all birds have received the treatment.
“Following vaccination we will leave the chicks in the boxes for 15-20min to dry and start to adapt to their new surroundings. The birds are carefully removed from the boxes and given easy access to water, provided in special drinkers, and food that is placed on strips of special corrugated cardboard that run the length of the shed.
“Our objective is to ensure the chicks are within six inches of food and water and are housed in a light and temperature controlled, draft-free environment.
“If a chick is over stressed and uses its initial energy reserves early in life it will certainly affect how it grows and develops,” says Mr Macleod. “The bird needs to be in optimum health if it is to go on to lay prolifically during its time as a layer and so reach the breed’s full potential. If you deviate too far from the predicted growth curve it’s difficult to put the bird back on track.
“The skeletal system and organs are developing rapidly in the first few weeks of life and the chick will double its body weight during this time, therefore attention to detail is of paramount importance in this vital stage of development.”