Good pullet uniformity is the secret to good layer performance

Starting off with good pullet uniformity and basing decisions on production rather than age is the secret to good layer performance, as Richard Allison discovered

Norfolk free-range producer Philip Wright is now in his second year of being a free-range egg producer with two flocks of 16,000 layers.

One flock comprises of Hy-Line Brown layers and has achieved an average of 321.3 eggs/hen to 72 weeks and two days, 4.5 eggs above the breed’s standard target.

Independent consultant Terry Ellener, who works for Hy-Line, carefully monitored their growth throughout the rearing phase on a Noble Foods rearing unit. Not only was he checking body weight, but equally importantly their uniformity.

He believes uniformity is a very important factor and his goal is to achieve 80% or more at 16 weeks for all his clients. “It’s not just a matter of body weight and condition, evenness is crucial.

“This means that once pullets arrive at the layer unit, it is much more straightforward for light stimulation and means you will keep control of egg size during lay.”

Mr Wright’s flock arrived with 83% uniformity and first light stimulation was at 19 weeks when birds had an average bodyweight of 1456g. Despite holding them back a little, production reached 92.4% at 23 weeks and the flock spent 10 weeks over 95% and 31 weeks at over 90%.

Farm manager Andrew Woolley says: “Feed consumption is excellent, floor eggs have been exceptionally low at 0.19%, seconds have been minimal throughout and mortality finished at 3.03%.”

On feeding, Mr Ellener believes the secret is to carefully monitor birds and base any diet changes purely on performance. This is also the case for when to light birds. “We don’t stimulate on age, we go on performance as this avoids excess egg size.”

The result is that with Mr Wright’s flock, egg size was well under control throughout, averaging 66.6g at 72 weeks. Excessive egg weight can lead to high mortality, resulting in egg peritonitis and E coli problems which can lead to feather loss.

“Therefore, we urge producers to monitor egg weight and output, feed intake and bodyweight on a weekly basis to provide the data on which to base management decisions.”

Routine weighing simply involves randomly weighing 100-120 birds and then calculating the uniformity. It is the percentage of individual weights which occur within 10% of the current flock average. Therefore, an uniformity of 80% means only two out of every 10 birds is more than 10% different to the mean.

“It’s also a useful management tool for picking up any other problems early on. You don’t want to go 2-3 weeks and miss any problems,” he says.

“To help new producers, we try to ensure one of the reps from either the feed company, chick supplier or breed company goes to the unit each week to help monitor birds.

Mr Ellener also believes light intensity plays a big part after transfer to the layer unit. “We always recommend a minimum light intensity of 20-30 lux over the litter area. It should be reduced slightly over the slats to 14-17 lux and darker towards the nest.

“Naturally birds require a darker place to lay eggs, so this lighting level helps keep floor eggs to a minimum by encouraging birds to the nests,” says Mr Ellener.

And it’s not just lighting, Mr Wright invests time walking sheds as birds come into lay. “We check birds at least four times in the crucial morning period and removing floor eggs. If you leave an egg, in 10 minutes it becomes 3-4 eggs as hens see the egg and think it is a nest. It’s really a matter of training birds to use the nest boxes instead of the floor,” said Mr Wright.

Flock performance at 72 weeks and two days

  • Flock size 16,000 birds
  • Egg output 321.3 eggs/hen housed
  • Average egg weight 66.6g
  • Egg mass 20.6kg
  • Feed intake 126.5g/bird
  • Mortality 3.03%

Philip Wright case study

Philip Wright’s family have been farmers since 1850 near Acle, Norfolk. However, back in 2007, he decided to diversify into free-range egg production.

Twelve months of fact-finding followed, with help from Jeff Vergerson of Noble Foods Countryside setting up meetings with other egg producers. After which, Mr Wright took the decision to build two adjoining units housing 16,000 birds each on a 32ha (79-acre) site. He produces eggs under contract for Noble Foods.

To enable Mr Wright to concentrate on the arable side of his business, he took the decision to employ a farm manager. Andrew Woolley was soon appointed, an agricultural college graduate with 20 years’ poultry industry experience covering egg production, turkey production and broiler and layer breeders.

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