Egg producers should take steps to reduce egg size and boost farm returns, according to speakers at a new producer discussion group in the south-west.
Recent trends in egg prices meant it was no longer profitable to aim for larger egg sizes, David Stephens of Noble Foods told more than 100 producers who attended the first meeting of the West Country Layers Association in Cullompton, Devon, last month. Traditionally, he said, consumers and retailers preferred very large and large grades of eggs.
Packers had always reflected this in the price differential between large and medium grades. But in meeting these demands, producers had compromised their returns through lowered egg numbers, increased seconds due to poor shell quality, and greater feather wear and loss.
But now, falling demand for larger eggs meant that very large grades now only made up 2% of retail sales, with large eggs taking 38% of the market share, and medium eggs 36%.
Retailers and packers had dropped the premium for very large eggs, and narrowed the gap between large and medium eggs considerably, said Mr Stephens.
“Because of this price structure, there is no financial advantage in producing any eggs over 63g.”
By reducing average egg size, producers should enjoy greater egg numbers, more efficient use of feed, better feather cover, and fewer seconds, adding £1000s to the bottom line, he predicted. But how could they do so in practice?
Egg size was determined by genetics, maturity, and nutrition, he explained, but could also be influenced by lighting and feeding programmes, throughout rearing and in lay.
“Laying hens are under a lot of pressure, so it is our duty to prepare them for what’s to come,” said David Scott, managing director of Lohmann GB. “You need to work closely with your pullet rearer, so they understand what you want from the bird.”
Lighting periods should be set according to the layer’s planned schedule, to avoid stressing the birds, said Mr Scott.
Because average egg size was increased by 1g throughout the cycle for every week’s delay in the onset of lay, producers should be looking to bring pullets into lay more quickly than in the past, and adjusting their lighting programmes accordingly.
A batch of pullets should always be even in weight, but with layers there should not be too much emphasis on heavy birds, he added. Lighter birds would produce smaller eggs – good frame development and appetite was more important than weight.
“You want your rearer to be encouraging the birds to eat more and build an appetite – that is massively important when the birds come into lay.”
Birds always ate more during daylight, and in the afternoon rather than the morning. Both growing pullets and layers should therefore be offered a paired feed first thing in the morning, to provide for both timid and aggressive birds, followed by a series of four feeds later in the day.
Often, layers were fed a high specification diet to avoid post-peak dips in production, said Steve Pritchard of Premier Nutrition. However, doing so could lead to larger egg sizes later in lay: “Instead, you want to think about egg mass as a means of feeding the bird.”
Although peak production came at 24-25 weeks of age, peak egg mass actually came at around 35-40 weeks. Cutting high spec feed at that time would therefore lead to a sharp drop in production.
“If you have a good quality pullet, feed a medium density diet all the way through lay, but if you need to start on a high spec diet, monitor feed intake and egg size and change the diet before peak egg mass.”
Taking a long-term view from rearing to the end of lay was the most successful way to control egg size, he added.
“Plan ahead – once the bird is in lay the die is cast – and it is much easier to increase egg size once in lay than to decrease it.”
The new West Country group, set up to unite industry experts, suppliers and egg producers, will hold two meetings a year where members can learn the latest on health, business trends and management techniques.
“Providing advice has always been a vital part of all our jobs,” said vet Stuart Young, chairman of the WCLA. “It is beneficial for everyone to share information and get up-to-date knowledge.”