Feeding for optimum layer performance

Feed plays a crucial role in maintaining health and maximising production in layers. Poultry World talks to two leading lights in the field.

With feed accounting for more than 55% of total production costs and vital to the health, welfare, growth, egg quality, egg size and overall productivity of a flock, it is an area that producers should focus on even more in these financially straightened times.

“It is relatively cheap and easy for farmers to know exactly what or how much they are feeding their birds,” says Martin Humphrey, director of Humphrey Feeds. “Control of feed is vital and in this area a little knowledge can go a long way.

“There are two key areas: an understanding of the components of feed and how those components meet the bird’s requirements throughout the laying cycle.

“Any changes to the diet should be relatively small to ensure no unnecessary stress is placed on the bird. For example, Humphrey Feeds offers five core diets, but with more than 450 bespoke formulations to avoid any large step changes.”

Rearing stage

It is estimated that less than a quarter of all poultry farmers visit the birds in rear.

“Producers should be visiting the birds in rear at least once,” says Alltech‘s poultry expert Judd Culver. “Ask questions about the parent flock and learn the weight progress of the pullets, using the flocks breeding standards as a guide and ensure the pullets are consistently meeting those standards.

“Different breeds have different nutritional requirements and therefore should have individual feeding regimes.”

Pre-peak/Early lay

When a flock first arrives on farm at 16 weeks, the key aim is to support the birds’ balanced growth, helping them reach sexual maturity to prepare them for the onset of lay.

“The conventional approach is to supply a high energy diet. However, we have been trying a slightly different approach, using a lower energy diet to increase the birds’ appetite, helping ensure they learn to eat more and subsequently gain body mass,” says Mr Humphrey.

“The birds will have been eating roughly 80g of feed per bird per day in rearing. Within four weeks of arriving on farm the aim is to increase that figure to 120g of feed per bird per day, which is a substantial increase in such a short time period.

“The broad principle is that a bird eats for energy, and so by feeding a high energy content diet you are actually encouraging the bird to eat less. With a lower energy content diet you are encouraging the bird to eat more, standing it in good stead for the remainder of the laying cycle.

“It is also a common misconception that birds have little or no sense of taste, so another way to increase feed intake in early lay is to gradually increase the oil content of the feed, which makes the diet more palatable.”

Gut health is also crucial in early lay, adds Mr Culver. “In basic terms, it is the bird’s ability to absorb nutrients more efficiently, therefore better maintaining a high degree of health, egg quality and improving the bird’s ability to overcome stress.

“Natural additives to feed provide an excellent way of strengthening the immune system and improving gut health. Look at the bird’s faeces. If it is over runny with foam or bubbles, then that is a clear indication that nutrients can be absorbed more efficiently and gut health subsequently improved.”

Peak lay

Peak lay is about achieving consistency in performance, without detriment to the bird’s welfare. Many producers may see a post-peak dip, where the bodyweight of the bird is not sufficient to support maximum egg output.

“We have seen the bird ‘laying off her back’, using nutrients from its own skeleton to keep producing eggs, forfeiting its own maintenance requirements,” says Mr Humphrey. “A post-peak dip is most common in the summer, where maximum day length and light exposure accelerates the birds into early maturity without the body mass to support such dramatic physiological changes.

“It is therefore vital that farmers understand the need to reach target bodyweight, not necessarily just to age, but also to match their maturity, and feed their birds accordingly.”

End lay

Assuming bird weight and egg production are on target, the emphasis for the feeding strategy should change post 30 weeks, from developing bodyweight to controlling egg size.

“Whereas weeks 16 to 30 are about bird maturity, growth and sexual development, from week 30 onwards it is about applying the brakes and ensuring control – particularly of egg size,” says Mr Humphrey.

“When feed prices are high the temptation is to spend less. But producers should be wary about this as it can substantially reduce egg quality and productivity.

“However, we have been working on higher energy diets. Keeping the energy higher to discourage the birds from over eating provides greater control of egg size. This is well suited to winter housed flocks, as well as being a strategy to deploy in freezing conditions.”

According to Mr Culver, if the recent narrowing of price differential between a large and medium egg continues, then it is very much an inducement for the farmer to increase the number of medium-sized eggs produced.

“The larger the average egg size, the fewer eggs a bird produces, so always consider optimising egg size for both the target market and bird welfare.”

Main components of feed

Proteins – Provide essential amino acids that are crucial to the health and growth of the bird. Examples are lysine, which helps young birds develop muscle, and methionine, which promotes feather development and influences egg size. Protein sources include vegetable proteins, in particular soya and to a lesser extent sunflower. A small amount comes from wheat.

Energy – The starch in cereals is the main energy source for the bird, with more energy obtained from vegetable oils.

Minerals – Calcium provides the base for skeletal growth as well as egg shell formation. A balanced diet will ensure that the bird does not deplete its own resources and undermine its own skeleton. Larger calcium particles, for slower release, come from marine shells such as oyster shells, and larger limestone particles, while a quicker calcium “hit” is provided by the finer limestone particles.

Oils – All poultry feeds include oil to optimise energy levels and increase palatability. Oils are also used to influence egg size. Early diets will use more soya oil, which is rich in linoleic acid, while later diets may use a lower linoleic oil source to discourage the bird’s natural tendency for increasing egg size.

poultry feed table

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