5 areas that can optimise feed efficiency in layer flocks

Feed ingredient prices are at their peak for this quarter, with the global market remaining firm in the face of the ongoing war in Ukraine, weather challenges, sanctions and huge shipping costs.

Producers should not expect to see significant price falls back anytime soon, either. 

“We’re in a situation where we’re seeing record prices, and while they have come down from peaks, they remain close to the highs of what we’ve seen in a very volatile market,” says Kayleigh Johnson, procurement and formulations manager at Humphrey Feeds and Pullets.

See also: 4 ways poultry technology can help tackle rising costs

“At the moment we’re seeing wheat trade at around £260/t and soya bean meal at £495/t. And another substantial cost is shipping. We buy amino acids from China, for example, and the shipping alone has risen by 600% to £2,000/t.”

“Feed is by far the biggest cost to the producer and ingredient prices are what they are right now – there’s very little control over that,” says Ms Johnson.

With alternative proteins and feed ingredients either not yet widely available and/or not economically viable, focusing on feed efficiency, and what influences that, is key to reducing costs. 

The right balance

Genetics are a very important factor in the relationship between feed efficiency and output.

“The modern laying bird will perform superbly with a higher peak of production, and sustain that peak far better than a bird 10 years ago,” says Martin Humphrey, director at Humphrey Feeds and Pullets.

“In previous generations of the birds’ genetics the producer would step down from one diet to another over the production cycle.

“Broadly, everything – including protein – would be balanced off the energy and come down, except calcium,” says Mr Humphrey.

“And while egg producers were implementing these diet amendments in previous years, they seem less inclined to do so now. The temptation is to avoid change because of fears over disrupting performance and behaviour,” he adds.

However, careful tailored changes suitable for today’s high-performing bird will improve efficiency and save money, says Mr Humphrey. Here are five key areas that producers should target.

1. Protein v amino acids

In the UK, poultry are generally overfed protein and there is a perception that higher protein equals better-quality feed – but that is not the case, says Mr Humphrey.

“Crude protein is the sum of all amino acids,” he explains. “We feed protein to supply amino acids, vital for various biological and chemical functions that facilitate skeletal and muscle growth, egg production, and health.”

Amino requirements change during the birds’ growth and development.

For broilers the focus is on the amino acid lysine, which helps muscle development, whereas a mature laying bird, from 20 weeks onwards, requires methionine, which particularly affects egg mass and is also important for feather covering.

Amino acid imbalances can cause negative behaviour patterns such as pecking, leading to cannibalism. “They must be available to the bird in the right proportions,” he says.

2. Diet adjustments

In Holland, balanced low-protein diets with correct amino acid profiles are successfully being fed to maintain productivity while reducing overall crude protein and emissions.

So how can UK producers make diet adjustments? “Historically feed compounders would have made big step changes and the birds would be affected by that,” Mr Humphrey says.

“Now that they’re performing so highly for so long, the risk of upsetting them is greater, so it should be done in small steps in consultation with the producer’s poultry nutritionist.”

Key questions to ask when looking at diet amendments are:

  • Is the energy level meeting the bird’s requirements?
  • Are the amino acid requirements of the bird being met for that system and stage of production?
  • Is the calcium being lifted with age?
  • Is enough calcium being fed in usable forms?

A diet’s crude protein and amino acid levels can be calculated from the feed ingredients, which typically include soya, sunflower and wheat. But amino acids may also be supplied in synthetic forms.

Mr Humphrey suggests a maximum reduction of 0.5% crude protein at a time. “There are no definitive rules, but with a high-performing flock it should be possible to get down to a sub-16% crude protein.”

Addressing nutritional pinch points that affect egg output and quality can also bring savings. “As birds progress through lay, calcium level needs to be rising,” he advises.

“Limestone and marine [oyster] shell are the main sources of calcium and ideally both should be incorporated into the diet.

The former is immediately available to the bird while the latter is a slow-release source, useful for helping the bird lay down the shell for her eggs. It also helps with good gizzard action.”

3. Feed efficiency

“Knowing the efficiency with which the bird is utilising the feed and converting it to eggs is a useful management statistic,” says Mr Humphrey. “Also, make sure the bird is healthy.”

Elanco’s 2021 HTSi report suggests that for every one unit increase in intestinal integrity, average daily gain and feed conversion ratio improve by 0.04g and 0.13 points respectively.

In terms of profits, a five-point improvement in intestinal integrity could boost income by £572,000 for a  business producing 100 million broilers a year.

For layers, optimal production alters according to life stage – a good peak would be at 97% and then over 90% production at 60 weeks of age.

“Good feed intakes – over the life of the flock – for those levels of production would be 120-126g a bird a day in a multi-tier system, and slightly higher in a flat-deck system at 130g a bird a day. Organic systems may have slightly higher feed intakes as it’s not so easy to balance the feed,” he says.

In free-range layer systems, birds will still be getting their nutritional input from feed while foraging stimulates natural behaviour and good welfare. Mr Humphrey says there is very little difference in terms of feed intakes.

4. Gut health

However efficiency is calculated, gut and general health are integral to reaching targets.

Make sure the pH of the gut is right and that the gut villi – responsible for absorbing nutrients – are healthy.

“Where a bird has poor gut health the villi are usually stunted or damaged from pathogens like E coli, coccidia and mycotoxins, which reduces the surface area for nutrient absorption,” says Mr Humphrey.

Feed manufacturers can incorporate ingredients to support good gut health, such as mannan oligosaccharides (MOS) – derived from Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a type of yeast.

“There’s a lot of work showing how it improves and maintains optimal gut health, specifically focusing on the villi,” he adds.

It is possible for the gut to repair itself, but that takes a lot of time – time you don’t have in a broiler cycle. The bird will need to take on extra feed to support its recovery, but with less output in terms of weight gain and eggs.

5. Environment management

Management of the environment is also key to ensuring good health, maximum productivity, and efficiency. “Fresh food, fresh water, fresh air,” he says.

Most producers are already well versed in that, but it is worthwhile assessing protocols and housing and range environments regularly with the farm team, including farm staff, consultants, and vets to see where improvements can be made.

Feed wastage is an area where producers could make further gains, too. Reviewing feed bin and feeding management may flag areas of wastage.