Building blocks of a layer farm for commercial egg production

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

  • Alan Saunders, former president of the Southern African Poultry Association (Sapa), has written a guide for Sapa to help producers compile a sensible layer strategy for commercial egg production.
  • While all hens lay eggs, not all breeds are equal when it comes to egg production efficiency. That is why it is crucial to select a breed with optimal egg laying potential.
  • In South Africa, the commercial layer industry primarily makes use of Dekalb (Amberlink), Hy-Line (Silver Brown and Brown) and Lohmann (Lite) birds.
  • “Whatever the housing or production system used, low-cost systems should not compromise the production potential of the bird,” says Saunders.
  • The modern layer has the genetic potential to produce more than 320 eggs during her lifetime, with a feed conversion of 2,2kg feed/kg eggs or 1,6kg/dozen. However, management needs to be spot on to achieve these objectives.

Despite the threats of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) and tumultuous feed prices, the egg industry is highlighted in the Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan (AAMP) as an agricultural subsector destined for great growth in future. In fact, the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy’s (BFAP) latest baseline forecast indicates that egg production will grow steadily at an annual rate of 2% from 486 000 tons (around 8,1 billion eggs) in 2023, to 569 000 tons (around 9,48 billion eggs) in 2032. Therefore, new entrants to the market need to empower themselves with knowledge to mitigate industry risks and reap the rewards.

Alan Saunders, former president of the Southern African Poultry Association (Sapa), has written a guide for Sapa to help producers compile a sensible layer strategy. Successful layer house management is aimed at ensuring that birds’ genetic potential is achieved using as little feed as possible, and that eggs of the required grade and quality are produced. This is only possible with a high level of management using good, well-maintained housing systems and equipment.

Read more about the South African poultry industry here.

Deciding on a breed

While all hens lay eggs, not all breeds are equal when it comes to egg production efficiency. That is why it is crucial to select a breed with optimal egg laying potential. Smaller egg production farms would typically purchase point of lay pullets from specialised pullet rearing farms, while larger operations will have their own pullet rearing farm supplying the layer operation.

In South Africa, the commercial layer industry primarily makes use of Dekalb (Amberlink), Hy-Line (Silver Brown and Brown) and Lohmann (Lite) birds. A handful of producers use the Hy-Line W36, a Leghorn-type bird, to produce white-shelled eggs for a niche market. However, producers could also decide on using an allrounder breed, such as the Potch Koekoek, Boschvelder, or Venda. These breeds, which were developed in Africa, are resilient and hardy, can withstand harsher temperatures and could also be more disease resistant.

Whatever the housing or production system used, low-cost systems should not compromise the production potential of the bird.

Housing and equipment

Over decades, layer cage systems have developed from rudimentary single-bird cages equipped with a feed and water trough, to modern colony cages in which feed, water and egg collection is fully automated.

In recent years, animal welfare pressure has resulted in changes to the basic cage design and recent developments include supplying nest boxes, perches and a dust bath in cages. Alternate production systems, such as free-range and barn systems, have also gained popularity.

“Whatever the housing or production system used, low-cost systems should not compromise the production potential of the bird,” says Saunders. Also, the welfare and health of the birds should always take priority.

The design of individual sheds should be planned and placed in such a way that it can be depopulated and re-stocked on an ‘all-in, all-out’ replacement cycle. This ensures that producers can clean and repair a layer house completely before placing the next cycle of birds.

It is important that producers familiarise themselves with the municipal laws and bylaws of the district to see how they affect lay-hen operations. Environmental impact assessments are also usually required.

Saunders says the farm layout should be such that poultry sheds are well separated from one another (rule of thumb is 1,5 to twice the width of buildings). The length of open buildings should be west to east to reduce the heat load and eliminate direct sunlight shining on the birds.

Proper ventilation should be ensured to control extreme heat or cold (Table 1). Incorrect temperatures can have a major influence on aspects such as feed efficiency and eggshell quality, and may even lead to mortalities.

Read more about poultry houses for broilers here.

Table 1: Brooding and house temperature requirements. (Source: Sapa/Alan Saunders)

AgeWhole house brooding (°C)Spot brooding 2m from brooder (°C)
Initial two to three days31 – 3232 – 34
3 to 7 days30 – 3131 – 32
8 to 21 days28 – 3029 – 31
21 to 28 days25 – 2825 – 28
29 to 35 days22 – 2522 – 25
36 days and older20 – 2520 – 25

Most commercial layers are kept in cages. Saunders states that the advantage of cage rearing compared to floor rearing is that the vertical height of the building can be used in multi-tier cage systems; with good ventilation and heating, the effective density of the building is increased compared to floor rearing. Fewer parasite control programmes are needed, and the birds also require less feed and water due to a decrease in activity.

Sapa sets out specific guidelines with regard to acceptable stocking density in cages (Table 2). Multi-tiered cages could be constructed in an A-frame cage configuration or as a stacked configuration. In the A-framed configuration, the cages are placed on top of one another in an A-shape. These cages could comprise of two, three or even four tiers.

In a stacked configuration, the cages are built directly above one another and can be stacked higher than the A-frame cages. While the stacked cages could save space, they are usually more expensive, because they require a more complex manure removal system.

Table 2: Space requirement for commercial layer type birds. (Source: 2012 Sapa Code of Practice)

Age (weeks)Weight (g)Cm2 per birdFeed trough (cm/bird)Water nipples (birds/nipple)
0 – 65001502,2515
7 – 181 4503004,58

Layer management

The modern layer has the genetic potential to produce more than 320 eggs during her lifetime, with a feed conversion of 2,2kg feed/kg eggs or 1,6kg/dozen. However, management needs to be spot on to achieve these objectives.

Most modern breeds are early maturing and commence production at around 19 weeks of age. Birds should be moved to the layer house not less than a week before production commences. Depending on the light programme applied in the rearing shed, this would normally be between 119 and 128 days of age (within the 18th week, but birds not yet 18 weeks old).

Layers should always have free access to fresh, clean feed. Once birds reach sexual maturity and production commences, feed consumption will increase rapidly. Keep this in mind and ensure adequate feed levels in the feed system.

Water is another essential part of the daily requirement of birds. At normal temperatures, birds will consume around 1,8 to two times the amount of water in mm/day, compared to the figure for feed consumption expressed as g/bird. In other words, if the feed consumption is 110g/bird, the water consumption will be in the order of 200 to 220mm/day. This ratio will change with colder or warmer temperatures.

Record management

Measuring production performance is vital to ensuring success for any poultry production system. Any basic flock record system would consist of data being recorded daily, which is then used to calculate meaningful data daily, weekly, and for the entire production period.

A record system should include placement statistics, mortality, feed quantity and delivery dates, daily water consumption, bodyweight changes, egg production, egg weight, feed conversion rates, vaccinations, environmental factors such as minimum and maximum temperatures, and flock performance.

Flock health and hygiene

With diseases such as HPAI wiping out entire flocks, it has become more important than ever to effectively manage health, hygiene, and biosecurity on poultry farms. In this regard, says Saunders, it is essential to know and understand the difference in appearance between healthy and sick birds (Table 3).

Table3: Differences between healthy and sick birds. (Source: Sapa/Alan Saunders)

 Healthy birdSick bird
StanceErect, tail held up.Tail and wings droop, head held close to the body, twisted back or between legs.
HeadClean pinkish red comb and wattles, bright and alert eyes, and clean nostrils. Eyes rounder.Discoloured shrunken comb and wattles, eyes dull and watery, nostrils caked, face swollen, eyelids closed and swollen. Eyes more oval shaped.
Legs and feetClean waxy scales, smooth joints cool to the touch.Dehydrated with prominent tendons, enlarged joints warm to the touch, and feet swollen and cracked.
FeathersSmooth and neat.Ruffled and stained on the vent.
Thirst and appetiteEat and drink often.Loss of appetite and birds often thirstier in beginning.
DroppingsGrey/brown with white caps, definite form. Caecal droppings may be frothy.Discoloured, watery or sticky, excess odour and could contain blood.
BreathingSilent, beak closed under normal temperature.Stressful, coughing, snickering and obvious panting movements.

The manifestation of a disease depends on aggravating and mitigating factors. Disease-causing agents such as viruses, bacteria, protozoa or toxins must be present for the disease to manifest itself. Factors such as stress, low feed intake, malnourished and underweight birds, and poor environmental conditions are examples of aggravating factors caused by poor management. A well-nourished bird with an elevated level of immunity are examples of mitigating factors brought about by good flock management.

Properly implemented biosecurity measures is needed to decrease the risk of disease. Prevention is better than cure, because it is very difficult to get rid of a disease once it has manifested. Diseases could be transmitted to a site either by vertical (from parent stock to hatchery to pullets to point of lay hens) or horizontal (between farms) means.

The pillars of biosecurity are based on flock separation, control of visitors, people and traffic, sanitation, insect control, removal of manure and cleaning. It also looks at ensuring a good immune status.

Vermin control is critical to ensuring a healthy flock. Control of rats and mice in poultry sheds is especially important, because they not only cause severe damage to electrical wires, plastic piping, wet pads and insulation material, but are also carriers of numerous diseases. Rats also have huge appetites and consume poultry feed at a rate of 6kg feed/day for every one hundred rats.

They are intelligent animals and are quick to become bait shy and even resistant to poisons. That is why the presentation, location and types of poison should be regularly rotated. However, it is crucial to ensure that the poultry’s feed and/or water should not be contaminated with poison. – Susan Marais, Stockfarm

For more information, contact Dr Abongile Balarane, general manager of Sapa’s layer division at abo@sapoultry.co.za or Alan Saunders at saunders.alanjohn@gmail.com.

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