In pursuit of the perfect pullet

The goal of the pullet rearer should be quality, quality, quality, according to Steve Carlyle of leading rearer Country Fresh Pullets, a subsidiary of Lloyds Animal Feeds.

Vital to success for both pullet rearers and egg producers was to start with the perfect chick, he told members of the Seven Valley Poultry Discussion Group at a recent meeting. “We have to aim for that.”

In an ideal world, all his chicks would come from mid-aged parent flocks – 35-55 weeks of age – and each batch would come from a single source. Chicks would be delivered to the rearer on the day of hatch, and all would have a “wonderful” weight on delivery.

“Hatcheries do a great job, but they can’t give me the ideal chick,” he said.

Younger flocks gave a slightly smaller chick, while older flocks had slightly poorer liveability. However, in practice these were minor differences.

“We are in the livestock market, and we have to accept we can’t have exactly what we want all the time. What we sometimes forget is that we’re all on the same side and we need to work together to make us successful. Regrettably, I believe the industry is too splintered, and we’ve almost got into a litigation nature, where once something goes wrong, everyone seems to want to blame each other.”

Mr Carlyle explained that every effort was made to supply pullets of the right standard. “If I’m selling you a pullet at £3.85, it’s an expensive item, and you expect it to be right.

“By the time the chick gets to us, it has been vaccinated twice for Marek’s and once for Chinese QX, had infrared beak treatment, and as soon as we get it we give it Paracox. This places a huge burden on these chicks, so we have to get them off to the best possible start.”

That meant an even house temperature of 32-34C, lights as bright as possible “so they can see where they are going when they get there”, and maximum availability of both feed and water.

“We start them off on the best possible diet you can get. We pay more than £300/t for premium starter in crumb form, with very high protein and very high energy. It took a lot to persuade ourselves to do this, and we used to wonder if we were just wasting it, but we are now convinced that’s the way to go. The old days of restricting feed are long gone. We are now pushing as much at these birds as we can.”

All birds were closely monitored for bodyweight and this determined when rations were changed.

“We weigh a proportion when we get them, because we want to get a base weight on arrival. What we get judged on by our customers is bodyweight of the finished pullet. That’s why we weigh every 7-10 days all the way through.”

It came down to good old-fashioned stockmanship, he said. “Evenness is something we need to look at closely, and is as important as bodyweight. I would much rather have a flock that was 80-90% even and a bit underweight, because I can work with that flock.” If necessary, managers would go into the flock and cull the smallest birds.

One recurring misunderstanding was loss of weight in transit. “The birds drive through the night to you, and we then get a phone call in the morning saying the birds aren’t 1330g and are too light.

“But birds do lose 10-12% of bodyweight in transit, so we say target weight on delivery day or day after delivery should be 1227g. Then it’s important to get that bodyweight back on as quickly as you can, so the bird can continue putting on weight until peak production.”

Another big part of pullet rearing was vaccination.

“We have 19 vaccinations in the standard programme, and every time you vaccinate you challenge the bird’s immune system,” said Mr Carlyle. “But even with all these vaccinations, it is still not a guarantee. Infectious bronchitis appears on the schedule about four times, yet it is still one of the most common diseases that affects the laying period.

“We’ve got to start thinking that whatever we do in the first 112 days, it isn’t going to protect them for the following 56 weeks. As producers you need to start thinking about live programmes in lay, with IB the obvious one, and maybe some others.

“For autogenous vaccines, please think about time scales. To inject them ideally at 12 weeks, we need to know at the time of placing the order.”

Having to inject 12,000 birds for one customer in a 30,000-bird rearing flock presented complications. “Autogenous vaccines are great, but we need more communication from you.”

Country Fresh Pullets grew 7.2m pullets last year on 44 farms, of which 15 are company owned. They are now 85% litter reared.

See more