|Bob Hawes demonstrates how to tell whether a hen is laying by its pigmentation. MOFGA volunteer Fran Curtis helps. English photo.|
Bob Hawes, retired University of Maine professor of animal science, talked about laying hens at MOFGA’s Small Farm Field Day last August. He said that three groups of hens are available for egg production.
The commercial crosses are crosses between two breeds. The Sex-link is the most popular of these – a cross between a Rhode Island Red male and a Barred Rock female. Other cross names are the Red Link, Red Star and so on. They lay very well and have a low mortality and good egg size. They are the best choice for “backyard folks” who want serious egg production.
Purebred production Rhode Island Reds, White Plymouth Rocks and other heritage breeds are good choices for those who want to maintain the old breeds. “The Dominique is probably America’s oldest purebred fowl, and it has found many new friends in recent years,” says Hawes. “Purebred White Leghorns also fall into this category. The Leghorns produce a white egg and are a little more economical to keep based on their smaller body size.” The brown egg birds, however, have a better carcass value at the end of the laying period – unless they are kept into their fourth or fifth years.
The third group of birds includes breeds that are raised mainly for exhibition purposes, for their fine feathers. They don’t have the production levels of the groups above; and they may have a higher mortality. However, they are colorful and can be exhibited at fairs and poultry exhibitions.
The cost of a dozen eggs includes the cost of the chick ($1.10) and the cost of feed to 20 weeks (when hens begin to lay) – $2.38. (This is the cost of non-organic feed; organic will be more.) Thus, the cost of a pullet is $3.48 ($1.10 + $2.38) – not including water, housing, medication and labor.
A hybrid bird, from the time it is 20 to 74 weeks old, will produce about 18 dozen eggs. Thus, the $3.48 spent on the pullet to the age of 20 weeks contributes $0.19 to the cost of each dozen eggs ($3.48/18 dozen = $0.19). Another 4 pounds of (non-organic) feed at $0.13/lb. for the 52 weeks of production adds $0.52 ($0.13 x 4) to the cost of the dozen eggs. Thus, the cost of producing a dozen eggs is $0.19 + $0.52 = $0.71 – again, not counting labor, water, medication and housing.
Looking at Feed
Feed accounts for approximately 70% of the cost of raising an egg-type female. When starting chicks you should buy a “chick starter” that has a protein concentration of about 20 percent. After eight weeks of age, change to a grower ration of about 15% protein. When the birds start to lay (around 22 weeks), provide a layer mash or layer pellets; these feeds are 16% to 17% protein. Protein in poultry feeds used to come from meat scraps and fish meal. Most now comes from soybean meal.
Chick starter feed will have 0.80 to 1.2% calcium, while layer feed will have 3.4 to 3.8 percent. Don’t switch from starter to layer feed too soon; if chicks receive too little protein and too much calcium, they will have trouble with the growth of their bones.
Hawes recommends using medicated chick starter for the first six to eight weeks of age, to prevent Coccidiosis. No vaccines or antibiotics exist to control Coccidiosis. Hawes warned that you have to watch for outbreaks of Cocci when changing to a non-medicated feed. The grower rations are not medicated, and sometimes an outbreak of Cocci will occur and require specific treatment. Medications can be added to the drinking water on such occasions.
Note that organic standards require that hens be managed organically from day two of their lives.” This requires organic feed and no treatment with prohibited substances, such as the Amprolium found in medicated chick starters. Giving the chickens a clean environment will help control parasites and diseases, says MOFGA’s assistant director of technical services, Diane Schivera. One big management tip, adds Hawes, is to keep young birds well separated from adults until the younger birds are 18 to 20 weeks old. Also, herbs and dlatomaceous earth can help control various diseases. Medicated feeds should NOT be fed to young waterfowl. The medication used in the chick feeds is lethal to them. Young waterfowl can be started on a feed called Game Bird Starter/Grower, which comes in a crumble form.
Eggmaker Crumbles, Hawes continued, is a feed used by those who are trying to turn their backyard flock into a business. It usually has 1% more protein and is especially higher in lysine and methionine than layer pellets or mash.
Gamebird Starter/Grower Crumbles (22% protein) is often fed to exhibition birds and game birds, since the owner is interested in feather growth, and feathers are so high in protein.
For the small-time grower, the best plan is to buy chicks in the spring (April or May) so that they are maturing during periods of decreasing daylength (August and September). Chicks hatched in the fall and winter months will be maturing during a time of increasing daylength (late winter and early spring). These latter birds will need some type of light restriction program in order to prevent premature maturation. Birds grown during periods of increasing light have smaller body size at sexual maturity. This reduced body capacity may limit egg production and may contribute to uterine inversion (prolapse) when egg production is initiated.
When birds are grown under a program of naturally decreasing light (July through November), they should be given supplemental light starting at about 21 to 22 weeks of age. The aim is to have these birds on a total daylength of 14 to 16 hours through the winter months. This can be done with a combination of natural and artificial light. You can use artificial lights in the early morning and in the evening and utilize natural light during the normal daylight hours. The birds respond not to the intensity of the light but to its duration. To get birds up to the 14 to 16 hours per day, start adding 30 minutes of artificial light per week at 21 to 22 weeks until the combination of natural and artificial light reaches the needed level. No advantage is apparent in supplying birds with more than 16 hours of light per day. This scheme can actually be a disadvantage, since in the spring you generally cut back on the artificial light, and the bird then thinks its day is decreasing at a time when natural daylength is actually increasing.
Hens that are laying can be distinguished from those that are not when they are five to six months of age. The longer a bird lays, the more its skin becomes bleached and its beak becomes white. The vent (where the egg exits) of a non-layer, on the other hand, will be quite pigmented. Once a hen has been laying for six months, the light beak, pale vent and light/white legs will be quite noticeable, while the non-layers will have a yellower beak and skin, and they’ll be quite fat because they haven’t been laying all winter.
– Jean English