Attention to detail is everything when it comes to successful breeding and hatching, as our special report makes clear. In the first article, Wendy Short looks at hatchery management.

There is a general acceptance on some hatchery units that a certain percentage of losses are inevitable, with managers not always spending enough time identifying the cause of problems as they arise.

But the acceptance of poor survival rates is not helped by the fact that there has been minimal UK research published on hatchery management over the past two decades, according to Dr Charles Deeming, who spent 10 years as a hatchery consultant and is now a lecturer at the University of Lincoln.

He believes the majority of losses are due to mechanical failure, or incorrect machinery set up. “The hatcher is often blamed for dead chicks, when the cause may actually be linked to a faulty setter,” he says. “Over-heating in the setter is the main reason for high levels of chick mortality and poor quality birds. An increase in egg temperature of just one or two degrees Centigrade can seriously reduce survival figures.

“Too much fresh air in the setter creates an unstable temperature in the cabinet. This occurs when the intake flap is permanently set on automatic. Excess air activates the thermostat, heating up the environment in response. As well as affecting embryo survival, more energy is being used, adding to the cost of production.”

Dr Deeming admits that modern machinery can be complex, with a variety of makes and models, each having specific requirements. He recommends that managers provide training for all staff involved in its operation.

Other issues affecting production include egg quality, which should be monitored at the intake stage, to confirm that each batch is first grade. Research suggests that an average 2-3% of all eggs may be damaged on arrival and will not hatch. Eggs with broken shells should be replaced at the outset, with efforts made to negotiate egg payments linked to hatching performance, he adds.

Losses during transfer can also impact on profitability, so random samples from each batch should be examined, to ensure that moving machinery is operating effectively. Water spray systems in both setters and hatchers should be tested regularly, particularly if embryo mortality is high.

Egg age is not a major issue in the UK, although eggs more than 14 days old will not perform as well as fresher samples. Stored eggs should be kept at 15C, in conditions of 75% relative humidity. However, longer storage periods will require temperatures of 12C. Dirty eggs are a major cause of disease, so efforts should be made to reduce floor egg numbers in integrated systems, as these are a common source of the problem.

Dr Deeming advises all unit managers to set a target for an “acceptable” level of hatchability and investigate when targets are not being met. For many operations, 80-82% hatchability averaged over the age of the flock is acceptable, but the best-performing hatcheries and flocks regularly achieve 85%.

“The difference between 80% and 85% in terms of chick numbers is highly significant, particularly as the number of UK hatcheries has gone down over the past 20 years, while chick placings per hatchery have risen dramatically,” he says.

“Attention to detail is the main reason why some hatchery units are more profitable than others, and it is worth monitoring all production stages, on units looking to improve on performance,” says Dr Deeming.