Plan a system for your layers

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

  • Starting out as an egg producer can be very expensive if you wish to establish a modern laying battery system. The secret to success, however, is to not go too big.
  • If you want to start selling eggs straight away or specialise in egg production only, 18-week-old birds can be bought from poultry agents.
  • The advantage of a layer house with an outside fowl run is that the layers benefit from sunlight and pasture.
  • The number of birds per square metre of floor space depends on the size of the unit and the breed of layers.
  • In a hot climate, well-ventilated nests with small perforations at the back of the box are recommended.

The demand for eggs is increasing daily as more people become aware of its tremendous nutritional value.

Starting out as an egg producer can be very expensive if you wish to establish a modern laying battery system. The secret to success, however, is to not go too big. The key is starting a small project and once the necessary experience and success has been gained, the new producer can undertake market regulated expansion. 

Basic planning data

Laying hens can be brooded and reared as chicks and pullets. If you want to start selling eggs straight away or specialise in egg production only, 18-week-old birds can be bought from poultry agents. These birds are kept in the laying accommodation from 18 weeks of age until laying starts at 20 to 25 weeks.

Point-of-lay chicks are sold at around R85 each. Different housing facilities and equipment are available and will be discussed in the following sections.

Fold unit (free-range eggs)

This unit is systematically moved over an area of grassland to avoid infections and provide new pastures for the layers. Management and layout of big fold units are high. The unit must be moved daily to a new piece of land and not be returned to the same spot or area for approximately 30 days.

The ideal site for this type of layer accommodation is flat land with light, well-drained soil and short-cut pastures. Each unit needs some 160m² of pasture and each layer needs 0,30m² of floor space. Each 16 layers per fold unit requires 5m² of floor space.

Poultry run system (free range)

The advantage of a layer house with an outside fowl run is that the layers benefit from sunlight and pasture. However, the system could be expensive depending on the amount of netting for the run. The poultry run system consists of a house and a well-drained exercise area enclosed by wire netting. The house must be equipped with perches, nests, and feed and water troughs.

The size of the house and run is determined by the number of layers. Each layer needs about 5m² in the run area and 0,2m² in the house. Thus, a system for 25 layers requires a run area of 125m² and a house of 5m². For laying, six single nests or one communal nest with a floor space of at least 0,24m² is needed for 25 layers.

Deep-litter systems (intensive farming)

This is an intensive layer system as poultry is kept indoors all the time and very little space is necessary. The litter should be removed from the house at the end of the hens’ laying cycle, which is approximately every 12 months.

The number of birds per square metre of floor space depends on the size of the unit and the breed of layers. The layout and construction of a general deep-litter layer house is the same as for a poultry run system (but without the run area).

Figure 1: An illustration of a deep-litter and slatted floor house.

Click here to learn more about poultry houses for broilers.

Battery system (intensive farming)

Some poultry and egg producers use a more intensive and sophisticated method of egg production. It entails ‘factory’ farming to an extent where the layers are kept in cages arranged above the floor in a weatherproof and ventilated chicken house.

Droppings fall through the wire bottom of the cage onto the floor. Eggs are laid on the wire and roll out of reach of the hens. Up to five layers inhabit one cage and feed is usually restricted so the hens do not gain weight and stop laying eggs.

This method is space saving. It is comparatively easy to feed and water the hens, collect the eggs and check their health. Droppings are easily removed, and no litter is required.

Fittings and equipment: Nests

In a hot climate, well-ventilated nests with small perforations at the back of the box are recommended. Nests should be deep and dark and must be designed in such a way that nest material cannot be easily scratched out. A 60mm high lip in front of the nest opening should be sufficient.

Nest boxes may be constructed from timber, metal, bricks or concrete slabs. Single nests should be 250 to 300mm wide, 300 to 380mm deep, and 300 to 350mm high, depending on the size of the layers. A landing board or a perch should be attached 100 to 200mm from the front of the nest on each tier. The number of nests depends on the size of the flock. Single nests can be placed in one, two or three tiers above each other.

The lowest tier should be raised at least 600mm from the floor or ground level, otherwise hens will tend to crawl underneath these nests and lay there. Nests should preferably not face the light, because dark conditions reduce egg heating.

Arrange nest boxes so that eggs can be collected from outside the shed. Alternatively, place an open-topped nest with three or four compartments just inside the door so that eggs can be collected without having to go into the pen.

Feeders and drinkers

Layers require approximately 120g of layers’ mash per bird per day or 2kg per day for a total of 16 layers. Two metres of linear feed space is required for a unit of 16 layers. Troughs are attached along the side of the unit to be filled by hand from the outside. For 16 layers about 5 litres of drinking water is needed per day in a water trough or fountain drinker. The linear trough space needed is about 250mm for 16 layers.

The feed should be stored in bags in a dry room protected from pests and insects. For larger units, a separate lockable storeroom should be built close to the poultry house. Feed bags should be stored on a slatted wooden floor. A storeroom of 1,5 to 4m² area is recommended, depending on the size of the unit. A layer eats about 3,5kg of layer mash in one month.

Design drinking troughs to hold enough water for at least 24 hours. It should be made of non-corrosive material such as galvanised iron, plastic or burnt clay. All layers need drinking troughs within a 3-metre proximity.

Temperature and light

A comfortable temperature for layers to produce optimally and eat minimally ranges between 11 and 26°C. They eat more when the temperature is below 11°C. When the temperature is above 26°C, less feed is eaten but fewer eggs are laid. Above 35°C the layers pant excessively, stop eating and don’t lay any eggs. When temperatures are high, you can cool the layers down by spraying the roof or the hens with water. If the hot weather persists for a few days, paint the roof white or cover it with grass or shade cloth and open all windows and doors.

If the layers often get heat stress in summer (e.g., Lowveld conditions) then the poultry house should be altered, and fewer layers kept. Suggestions for alterations are:

  • Replace a metal roof with fibre cement or thatch.
  • Raise the height of the roof.
  • Remove rows of bricks in the side walls and replace it with wire netting.

In places that have cold, windy weather you can cover the netting with hessian or plastic or have solid brick walls up to the eaves on windy sides. Layers are comfortable and produce more eggs if there are no smells in the house and the litter is dry. Fresh air (but not draughts) moving through the house will remove excess moisture and smells. Natural ventilation and a well-designed poultry house will ensure this.

Click here to read more about how to deal with rodents in a poultry house.

Managing the laying flock

To secure a high rate of egg production, it is essential to ensure that pullets and layers are well-bred, reared, fed and managed throughout the growing period.

Modern hybrid layers will produce more than 230 eggs per layer in 12 months. Well-managed pure breeds may produce 200 eggs and indigenous birds 150 eggs during the same period. Good layers can lay well for only 12 to 14 months, so keep layers only for this period.

Poultry manure is a valuable fertiliser. A layer produces about 150 to 200g of manure daily. Litter and manure from the poultry house should not be covered in case of rain. Spread wet manure out to dry and then store it in a dry place. Dried manure can be sold in bags or spread on crops, orchards and vegetable gardens.

Table 1: A typical management programme for layer hens.

Management programme
Management dailyManagement 14 daysManagement monthly
Check the poultry for signs of diseaseChange litter in nest boxesTotal record; calculate how much feed (and money) was needed for egg production
Check the environment (temperature)Check the house for insects and clean it 
Clean drinkers and provide fresh drinking waterTurn old litter if necessary 
Check feeders and clean it if necessary, provide fresh feedAdd more litter on top if necessary 
Check litter, remove wet cakes  
Collect eggs three times a day  
Keep records and check for deviations  

Decreased laying

If hens stop laying eggs the reason might be moulting, stress, decreasing daylight, diseases, the age of the flock, feeding or water.

Moulting is a natural process of shedding and renewing feathers. While annually moulting or nesting, hens will stop laying for up to three months, depending on their age. Moreover, moulting as a result of stress causes hens to stop laying or to lay at a reduced rate.

Stresses such as moving, handling, chilling, overheating, beak trimming, lack of water and fright can cause moulting or a drop in egg production.

Decreasing daylight frequently causes hens to moult and stop laying eggs for about two months if they are exposed to natural light, and especially if they have been laying for a long time. To prevent this, provide supplementary light to maintain a constant daylight duration of 15 to 16 hours.

Signs of disease

Disease problems can occur under the best of circumstances. Often the first sign is a drop in feed consumption followed by a decline in egg production. Other symptoms include moulting, dull and listless appearance, coughing, lameness and death. Remove wet litter as soon as possible to avoid a build-up of worms and other parasites.

The older the hens are, the fewer eggs they will lay. Egg laying will be interrupted by annual moults and sometimes even two moults a year for older hens. For economic reasons it is usually good practise to replace hens after two laying seasons.

A balanced diet is essential to good egg production. A daily ration of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals is required. Grain, green feed and kitchen scraps are good, but more eggs will be produced with a proper diet. Soft-shelled eggs is a sign of calcium deficiency. Hens must always have a supply of cool, clean water. – Francois Swanepoel, ARC – Natural Resources and Engineering

For more information, contact Francois Swanepoel at swanepoelf@arc.agric.za

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