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In pursuit of the perfect pullet

The goal of the pullet rearer should be quality, quality, quality, according to Steve Carlyle of leading rearer Country Fresh Pullets, a subsidiary of Lloyds Animal Feeds.

Vital to success for both pullet rearers and egg producers was to start with the perfect chick, he told members of the Seven Valley Poultry Discussion Group at a recent meeting. “We have to aim for that.”

In an ideal world, all his chicks would come from mid-aged parent flocks – 35-55 weeks of age – and each batch would come from a single source. Chicks would be delivered to the rearer on the day of hatch, and all would have a “wonderful” weight on delivery.

“Hatcheries do a great job, but they can’t give me the ideal chick,” he said.

Younger flocks gave a slightly smaller chick, while older flocks had slightly poorer liveability. However, in practice these were minor differences.

“We are in the livestock market, and we have to accept we can’t have exactly what we want all the time. What we sometimes forget is that we’re all on the same side and we need to work together to make us successful. Regrettably, I believe the industry is too splintered, and we’ve almost got into a litigation nature, where once something goes wrong, everyone seems to want to blame each other.”

Mr Carlyle explained that every effort was made to supply pullets of the right standard. “If I’m selling you a pullet at £3.85, it’s an expensive item, and you expect it to be right.

“By the time the chick gets to us, it has been vaccinated twice for Marek’s and once for Chinese QX, had infrared beak treatment, and as soon as we get it we give it Paracox. This places a huge burden on these chicks, so we have to get them off to the best possible start.”

That meant an even house temperature of 32-34C, lights as bright as possible “so they can see where they are going when they get there”, and maximum availability of both feed and water.

“We start them off on the best possible diet you can get. We pay more than £300/t for premium starter in crumb form, with very high protein and very high energy. It took a lot to persuade ourselves to do this, and we used to wonder if we were just wasting it, but we are now convinced that’s the way to go. The old days of restricting feed are long gone. We are now pushing as much at these birds as we can.”

All birds were closely monitored for bodyweight and this determined when rations were changed.

“We weigh a proportion when we get them, because we want to get a base weight on arrival. What we get judged on by our customers is bodyweight of the finished pullet. That’s why we weigh every 7-10 days all the way through.”

It came down to good old-fashioned stockmanship, he said. “Evenness is something we need to look at closely, and is as important as bodyweight. I would much rather have a flock that was 80-90% even and a bit underweight, because I can work with that flock.” If necessary, managers would go into the flock and cull the smallest birds.

One recurring misunderstanding was loss of weight in transit. “The birds drive through the night to you, and we then get a phone call in the morning saying the birds aren’t 1330g and are too light.

“But birds do lose 10-12% of bodyweight in transit, so we say target weight on delivery day or day after delivery should be 1227g. Then it’s important to get that bodyweight back on as quickly as you can, so the bird can continue putting on weight until peak production.”

Another big part of pullet rearing was vaccination.

“We have 19 vaccinations in the standard programme, and every time you vaccinate you challenge the bird’s immune system,” said Mr Carlyle. “But even with all these vaccinations, it is still not a guarantee. Infectious bronchitis appears on the schedule about four times, yet it is still one of the most common diseases that affects the laying period.

“We’ve got to start thinking that whatever we do in the first 112 days, it isn’t going to protect them for the following 56 weeks. As producers you need to start thinking about live programmes in lay, with IB the obvious one, and maybe some others.

“For autogenous vaccines, please think about time scales. To inject them ideally at 12 weeks, we need to know at the time of placing the order.”

Having to inject 12,000 birds for one customer in a 30,000-bird rearing flock presented complications. “Autogenous vaccines are great, but we need more communication from you.”

Country Fresh Pullets grew 7.2m pullets last year on 44 farms, of which 15 are company owned. They are now 85% litter reared.

In pursuit of the perfect pullet

While the conventional cage-ban dominates discussions in the intensive indoor egg sector, the UK’s organic producers have been quietly preparing for their own major change in legislation – the move to 100% organic pullets.

But what was first seen as another burden on the organic eggs sector, which has suffered a dramatic drop in sales volumes and prices over the past two years, could be a boon, with producers and industry leaders reporting excellent results so far.

“Full organic rearing is proving to be a tremendous success,” says Mike Burrows from High Peak Organic Feeds. “The benefits are the birds are much stronger, they are keeping up peak lay for longer and they don’t need to be de-populated at week 72 because they are still way above 86% lay,” he said.

One unexpected benefit of 100% organic rearing is there has also been a reduction in the problems faced by organic producers because the birds are not allowed to have their beaks trimmed.

“They haven’t been beak tipped, but because they have access to the outside from approximately eight weeks old, their beaks, which are still soft, start to wear down as they forage.

“Light intensity is also slightly higher, because you have daylight in the sheds, and you haven’t got the problem of birds running for dark corners once they go through into the laying shed,” says Mr Burrows.

Shane Brettell, a Columbian Blacktail producer from Shrewsbury in Shropshire, has been rearing his own 100% organic birds for the past eight years.

He was motivated to start rearing his own after the process of converting 16-week-old pullets from conventional rearing to organic proved to be too costly and stressful for the birds.

“We were finding we were getting an awful lot of feather pecking and vent pecking. I was taking 10 dead birds out a day,” Mr Brettell recalls. “When bringing the birds out of a big shed into a small shed, they had to sort out their hierarchy and you get a lot of fighting. But if you rear them in the same flock size there is no stress for them.

“Now we’ve got no feather or vent pecking. They look as good as when they go in, when they come out at the end of lay. The difference is unbelievable.”

Egg production is also excellent, with Mr Brettell saying he gets 1820 eggs from 2000 birds a day.

One problem the sector still faces ahead of the new EU regulation coming into play at the end of the year, will be finding the birds in sufficient quantity, warns Mr Burrows.

“A lot of the large commercial organic flocks can’t do it with just 2000 birds. It’s a big problem,” he said. “Bigger producers have been using part-organic pullets. Once they switch to fully organic, where will they get them from? Most of the rearing farms don’t have organic pasture outside. I don’t know where they are going to come from.”

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