Chickens

From Antivist

Two types of chickens are used for egg-production purposes in small flocks: the dual purpose and the egg producing breeds.

Egg producing chickens have been bred for maximum egg production rather than meat yield, and can produce up to 300 eggs per year. They have a mature body weight of 1.8-2.0 kg (4-5 lb). These chickens are usually of the White Leghorn type or California Grey crosses. Spanish, Minorcas, Anconas, and Andalusians are other egg-laying breeds.

Dual purpose chickens are often raised in small flocks for both meat and egg production. They are smaller than commercial broilers, but reach a mature body weight of approximately 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) for females and 3.0 kg (6.5 lb) for males. The hens will produce 200-250 eggs per year. Available breeds include Rhode Island Red crossed with Barred Rock, Columbian Rock, or Light Sussex. These hens usually produce brown eggs.

Contents

Nutrition

Chickens are not greedy, they will only eat as much as they need so you don't worry about over-feeding. Laying hens should always have ready access to feed. They will eat from 100 to 120 grams of feed each day. Feed consumption is affected by temperature, age of bird, and water availability (should be constantly accessible).

In the summer chickens can drink up to a pint each of water daily . The first signs that your birds are dehydrated will again be the reduction in egg production. If the drinker is freezing over in the colder months then it's a good idea to bring it inside in overnight but don't forget to put it back in the run in the morning!

Another important factor in your bird's diet is grit. Chickens hold a certain amount of grit in their gizzards, (an organ that grinds up any feed they've eaten making it easier for digestion.) If you let your chickens out fairly often they should find the grit they need from their surroundings. The layers mash also contains some grit but if you find the shells are thin or soft, then you can buy grit from some pet shops or country stores.

Handling

Depending on how used to human contact your chickens are, the easier or harder it will be to catch them. A little enticement with a handful of pellets should get them close enough!

As a rule the best way is to quickly grab their feet from under them. Do NOT chase your chickens around grabbing at their tails or wings. This will only cause them panic which could be bad for their health or at the very least, affect egg production.

Sometimes your chicken may think that you are a cockerel and flatten themselves to the ground in anticipation of mating. This will actually make them easier to pick up!

Once you have your chicken by the legs try to get it into a position in which you can carry it whilst supporting its body. Use one hand to support it from underneath by putting your index finger between its legs and securing the legs with your thumb and forefinger.

With one hand under the chicken, it is relatively easy to keep the chicken quiet and do any healthchecks you need to. Handling your chicken and getting it used to human contact will help you in the long-run even if you aren't keen to pick it up simply to stroke. You may want to put it in the run in a hurry before leaving the house, and a willing chicken will make life much easier!

There are two ways you can carry your chicken easily, head forwards or head backwards.'

Care

Hen care time is small in comparison with the other advantages. They destroy countless insects, and use unwanted vegetable waste, they supply eggs whose freshness cannot be impeached. An occasional chicken dinner, and the production of appreciable quantities of highly concentrated manure. For the majority of people, the profitable limit is 100 chickens. Master those before trying a greater quantity.

Make sure that the dropping tray does not overfill. The droppings can be put straight onto vegetables growing in the garden, but flowers will find it too strong. Add the droppings to your compost bin and it will speed up the process and produce an excellent compost.

Try to check that your birds are well every week or so by picking them up and checking for all the signs of a healthy chicken as outlined in the Chicken Health section.

Make sure that the straw, hay or shavings in the nesting box are clean and fresh.

Winter Care

Chickens don't mind the cold at all but they prefer not to get wet so why not give your chickens a bit of extra protection with the winter shade which covers the whole run. A good tip to prevent the area under the run becoming muddy is to cover the area with bark chippings.

Check water regularly for freezing and use an old string bag to hang greenery in the run for the chickens to peck at. You will get less eggs in the winter because of the shorter days but you should still get around 8 eggs a week.

Brooding Chickens

From time to time your chicken may go broody. In some chickens this maternal instinct is stronger than others and it can happen at any time. It is quite easy to spot because the broody hen will simply sit in the nesting box and refuse to budge. She may also make a peculiar growling noise if disturbed and become quite aggressive. However, unless your chicken has been near a cockerel within the last 7 days the eggs will not be fertilised and will never hatch into chicks. If you are not removing the eggs everyday there is more chance that a chicken will go broody.

If you do nothing, your chicken will stay like this for up to 3 weeks (the incubation time for eggs). It is not necessarily a problem. You can remove her from the nest and block the nesting box so that she cannot get in. Be brave, and lift her off. After a couple of days she will lose the urge to sit on the eggs and you can open up the box again.

Lighting

Proper light management is important when raising pullets in order to obtain maximum egg production. Lighting will stimulate egg production and help to synchronize the pullets so that they start to lay at approximately the same time.

If pullets are raised in a windowless barn which is light-tight, the daylengths should be controlled with a time-clock. During the brooding and rearing period (1-20 weeks), the daylength can be held at 8-10 hours of light or gradually reduced from 12-13 hours of light per day to 8-10 hours by 6 weeks of age. To bring the pullets into production, the light should be increased abruptly to 12 hours/day. It can then be gradually increased to 16 hours. Once egg production has been stimulated with increased lighting, the day lengths should not be reduced, or the hens will lay fewer eggs.

Often with smaller flocks, pullets are raised in barns with windows or are outside during the day and are subject to natural daylengths. They are also usually hatched in the spring. In this situation, by the time they reach 19-20 weeks of age, the natural daylengths are decreasing. Increasing the daylength with supplementary lighting will help bring them into peak production, and synchronize the flock into similar egg production cycles.

Light intensity should be held at 5 lux (.5 foot candles) in the barn, if possible. At this intensity it is still possible to read a newspaper, but with some difficulty.

Hours of Light to Provide by Age of Chicks

  • 0 to 7 days----- Lights should be on 24 hours/day
  • 1 to 6 weeks-----Lighting can be: a) 8-10 hours/day or b) 12-13 hours/day, gradually reducing to 8-10 hours
  • 6 to 19-20 weeks-----Lighting should be held at 8-10 hours/day
  • 19 to 20 weeks-----Lighting should be increased to 12 hours/day (egg production stimulated)
  • 20 weeks-----Gradually increase from 12 to 16 hours/day

Nests and Perches

If hens are to be kept in litter (straw) pens, or outside during the laying period, nest boxes should be provided. One nest (30 cm x 30 cm), should be provided for every 5 hens. They should be placed approximately 60 cm off of the floor, with perches to help hens reach the entrance. Nesting material, such as straw, should be placed inside the nests and replaced regularly.

Hens will sit on perches if they are provided, especially at night. If perches are provided, hens will also be less likely to stay in the nests at night. This will help to keep the nests clean.

Perches made of a hardwood are easier to clean and disinfect than those made with a softwood. They should be approximately 33 mm wide at the top. If perches are too wide, they can cause breast bone deformities. The perches should be deep enough so that the hens cannot puncture their own footpads by curling toenails around the bottom. Rounded edges at the top are also recommended. It is recommended that 12 to 15 cm of perch length be provided for each bird.

Temperature

A temperature range from 12-26 °C is suitable for hens during egg production. Hotter temperatures may decrease feed intake and therefore reduce egg production. Hens will increase feed intake in temperatures colder than 12 °C in order to meet energy requirements. Colder temperatures may decrease egg production, and in extreme cases freeze combs and feet. Temperatures should never go below freezing.

Calcium

Calcium intake is very important for laying birds, because the egg shell contains a great deal of calcium. It is also important in the pre-lay period (2 weeks prior to egg production), because this is the time period in which the pullets build up their medullary bone to enable them to manufacture egg shells. A deficiency in calcium can lead to skeletal problems, reduced egg production and thin egg shells. The main calcium source for laying hens is limestone and/or oystershell in the feed.

The Incredible Edible Egg

When your hens are laying well, they will produce a new egg every 25.5 hours

The colour of the shell depends on the breed of chicken and on the individual chicken itself. Some chickens lay dark brown eggs (like Madama Bluebelle) and the Araucana lays a blue egg, but the colour of the shell doesn't affect the taste.

Preference for yolk color varies. Some people like the pale yellow color, while others prefer dark gold yolks. Yolk color is influenced by pigment content in the feed. Essentially, if the hens have access to greenfeed, alfalfa or corn, the yolks will be darker.

Normally, a chicken lays the same shaped egg each time, varying only in size as the bird gets older. The shape is determined by a number of factors, from the amount of white produced to the chicken's internal muscles. Sometimes, the egg may not even look like the typical egg. It is still edible though.

Egg Handling

Eggs should be collected regularly and nesting material kept clean in order to avoid bacterial contamination. Eggs should be allowed to cool gradually prior to refrigeration to avoid sweating (which could also lead to contamination). Eggs are normally stored for 3-4 days at temperatures of 10-13 °C before marketing. Albumen (egg white) quality will decrease as the length of storage increases.

If eggs require cleaning, they can be brushed off with sand-paper or washed. If washing, a water temperature at least 12 °C higher than the eggs themselves should be used. A sanitizer should also be used in the water (not dishwashing liquid). Water with a high iron content should not be used. Eggs should be rinsed and then completely dried prior to storage.

You should store the eggs broad end up pointy end down, in a cool place. It is not necessary to keep them in the fridge except in very hot weather. Stored like this they should keep for up to three weeks. If in any doubt about freshness, there is a simple test that can be done by putting an egg in a bowl of water. If it sinks, it is fresh. If it stands upright, it is a few days old. If it floats, it is rotten.

Egg Production

The quality of product may be maintained by sanitation, cleanliness of the poultry houses, runs, nests, gathering the crop at least twice a day in autumn, winter, and spring, four times a day during warm weather, keeping them cool and away from direct sunlight to avoid deterioration, discarding all males except for breeding purposes so as to prevent fertilization and consequent rapid deterioration. Market eggs at least twice a week.

Eggs need to be checked for blood spots, graded as to size, weight, shape, cleanliness, infertility, and freshness.

Eight out of twenty-two farm flocks produce more than 48 eggs a year per hen. The most liberally fed flocks produce the most eggs. The best birds to keep are the ones which produce the most eggs. Egg production can be increased by systematic breeding, careful culling and careful feeding. Quick maturing Rhode Island Reds make more profit in eggs because they mature faster.

To find out what cost your eggs are, you must keep track of all costs including purchase of chicks, feed, water, labor, replacements, inventory depreciation, interest, auto, upkeep of buildings, taxes, lighting, miscellaneous.

Poor Egg Production

A problem often encountered with smaller flocks is poor egg production or sudden drops in production. There are many possible causes for low egg production, and often it is a combination of a few different factors. These factors may also influence egg size and shell quality. The items discussed below should be examined and corrected if necessary.

Feed which is poor in quality, with nutrient deficiencies and imbalances, can lead to reduced egg production. Protein, energy, and calcium are the more common culprits. An extra calcium source, such as oystershell or limestone, is usually required with diets made up of poultry supplement and grain. Also, if hens run out of feed or water, a drop in production could result. Toxins contained in the feed may also cause a drop in egg production.

Lighting programs which are not appropriate may cause problems. Low production may result if the pullets are reared with daylengths that are too long, or there is no proper increase in daylength to bring them into production. Daylengths which are too long may result from sunlight coming into barn windows. Hens may stop laying eggs if daylengths are decreased at anytime during the production period.

Sudden changes in temperature can affect egg production. Hot temperatures may cause a reduction in feed consumption, leaving the hen with insufficient nutrient intake to produce eggs. Both sudden increases and decreases in temperature will stress hens, and could adversely affect production.

Poor ventilation may cause a build-up of gases which might cause a drop in egg production. High stocking densities will also adversely affect egg production.

The age of the birds will also affect how many eggs they produce. Commercial pullets begin laying eggs at 19-20 weeks of age, and peak production occurs around 24-26 weeks. The hens in smaller flocks may not start until later. Production begins to drop slowly after the peak and by 72 weeks of age is down to 70% of the hens laying in a given day. The hens will eventually cease to produce and go into a moult (lose and replace feathers). Following moulting, hens will lay eggs for at least a second year. Egg production after a moult will be approximately 10-15% lower than the first year.

Various diseases will cause a drop in egg production. These include infectious bronchitis, mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG) and avian encephalomyelitis. Parasite infections such as coccidiosis and mites can also cause a reduction in production. If a disease is suspected to be present, a veterinarian should be consulted.

Health Check

  • When fully grown the chicken should sport a nice firm comb. The comb will be bright red when the chicken is in lay.
  • The eyes should be beady and bright.
  • A healthy chicken will be perky, lean and active.
  • Scales on the legs and feet should be smooth and not lifting. The colour of the legs is a good indicator of whether the chicken is laying. If they are very yellow then she is probably not laying eggs yet. If they are pale almost white then she probably is.
  • When you pick your chicken up her body should be plump and firm, but with no flabbyness.
  • You can examine your chickens eyes and nose to check there are no discharges.
  • The vent (the chickens all-purpose exit point) should be moist and white, with no lumps, crustiness, bleeding etc, see middle photo.

Moulting

When a chicken is about a year old she will start to lose her feathers but don't panic, this is meant to happen. She is moulting. This is a completely harmless process of plumage rejuvenation.

Moulting will typicall occur around the beginning of autumn. It will then take between 4 and 6 weeks to complete.

Make sure the birds are well fed during this period as it takes a lot of energy to grow new feathers. Because of all the energy taking up with moulting, your chickens will stop laying until their new feathers have grown. It is also important to remember not to clip your chickens wings when they are moulting.

Disease

Nutrient deficiencies, cannibalism, parasites and cage-layer fatigue are specific diseases affecting laying birds. Cage-layer Fatigue (osteoporosis)

Cage-layer fatigue, as the name implies, is typically found only in hens housed in cages. Inadequate dietary calcium, phosphorus and/or vitamin D can, however, can lead to the disease in hens housed on litter floors.

High levels calcium are put into each eggshell, and this calcium is removed daily from bones. Normally the bone is replaced, but in situations of nutrient deficiency (calcium, phosphorus, and/or vitamin D), the hen is unable to do so. Poor skeletal development and lack of exercise (especially in cages) are also causative factors.

Hens with cage-layer fatigue have lost a significant amount of bone and will go out of production. Other signs of the disease include paralysis, fragile and deformed bones, fractures, and weak egg shells. In extreme cases, hens will die.

Treatment by removing hens from the cages and placing on the floor with easy access to feed and water may be effective. However, prevention of the disease is much more important.

Good nutrition during the rearing and pre-lay periods is essential for good skeletal development. Proper levels of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D are important during the laying period. In small flocks it is common to supplement the diets with a calcium source (oystershell, limestone) that the hens can obtain free-choice.

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