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Managing the Layer of the Future

Just one feeding or diet error can affect performance


January 15, 2008
By Tony Greaves

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“Just one feeding or diet error can start to affect performance”

Although feed formulation comprises 80 to 90 percent management for layers and pullets, “timing of feed presentation, water, lights, ventilation and sanitation are also in need of review at all times,” says Dr. Bernie Beckman, staff veterinarian with Hy-Line International.

He believes that both water and feed should be available at time of housing. However, chicks can bypass one and walk over the other, and sometimes neither water or feed is consumed.  But when the feed is on cardboard, the chicks’ claws make a scratching sound and the birds stop to eat, then go to the water.

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“Nutritionists can build any diet you want, but to realize optimum benefit, it needs to be consumed by every bird and in the correct quantity,” he says. 

Tips for Optimal Early Growth 
The chicks’ environment needs to be clean to avoid mortality from secondary infections. Light needs to be three-foot candles at the darkest point on the floor or in the cage – not in the walkway.

Beckman says temperature recommendations have increased in recent years, from 31˚C to 33˚C for whites and from 35˚C to 37˚C for browns. However, he says that these might be difficult to maintain for the suggested two to three days if the humidity is high. After that initial period, he says that the temperature should be reduced by one or two degrees, then at day seven, reduced by one or two degrees again. 

“After day seven, weekly temperature decreases can be carried out so that the birds are at 21˚C by 28 days of age,” Beckman says. “By then the birds are fully feathered and have control of their core body temperature.”

To keep pain to the minimum, Beckman recommended that beak trimming be carried out after six days of age but before ten days of age. “But, if your schedule allows you to avoid trimming around two weeks of age I would recommend it because the bird increases its weight significantly at this time of its life.”

He also suggests that feed depth be increased for five to seven days after beak trimming, and to remind your staff to do this every time trimming takes place.

Dimming lights after 10 days of age seems to calm the birds, he says.  All possible feed, water and temperature adjustments should be made to improve bird comfort. He adds that a temperature of 21˚C after four weeks can be used to stimulate feed consumption. But, in order to grow the best possible frame, Beckman recommends that the number of feedings should not be restricted through 12 weeks of age.

“Maximum bone growth occurs through 12 weeks and allows birds to achieve early egg weight and skeletal reserves for egg shell formation,” he says. 

Because excess calories between 13 and 18 weeks will go into the development of fat cells, it’s no time to play catch-up. Those fat cells will hurt efficiency later on as fat cells expand when calories are again in excess of needs, says Beckman. So, the feed program during this time should be designed to meet, but not exceed, target weekly body weight gains.

Managing Layers
Before the onset of lay, dietary calcium should be increased to 2.5 to 2.75%, but not before 16 weeks. Light stimulation at 16 or 17 weeks will increase estrogen levels, which allows the birds to utilize the extra calcium and fill the medullary bone, he says.

“As sexual maturity continues, the birds take advantage of the extra calcium in the diet to increase bone density, which will ensure a reserve of calcium for egg production,” he says.  “Since birds are coming into lay earlier, this time frame for pre-lay will be only one to two weeks.”

Dr. Beckman says that the pullets should be housed prior to production – around 16 weeks – so they can adjust to their new environment. At this time, temperatures should be set to around 20˚C to stimulate consumption. He says that a 1˚C change in temperature can affect feed consumption by 1.4 grams per bird per day. Temperatures two to three degrees above 27˚C will reduce feed consumption to a level where nutrient requirements are not met.

When temperatures have to be adjusted, those adjustments should be limited to 1˚C every two weeks. But he cautions that temperatures should not exceed 24˚C while body weight remains below 1,300 grams.

Although lighting requirements vary with the strain of bird, light intensity should be a minimum of 1 ft. candle in the darkest area of the cage or floor – where the birds are, not in the feed troughs. Dusty light bulbs cut available light by half, which means that only one out of every six birds is being lit adequately, he says.

When the flock reaches one per cent production, they should be changed over from a pre-lay ration to a peak of 17 lbs. per 100 birds. Due the difficulty in measuring consumption levels accurately between 18 and 22 weeks, he suggests that the standard of 17 lbs. per 100 birds should be used.

“Although many flocks will be below this standard level at this age, we can’t formulate diets for a consumption level below 17 lbs. per 100 birds,” he says. 

Nutrition and Egg Size
Refining nutrition to achieve target egg size is the “nuts and bolts” of the layer industry, Beckman says.

Peaking rations should be formulated based on actual consumption, keeping in mind that some flocks may not reach the 20 lbs. per 100 birds per day level until 25 weeks of age.
“Monitor weekly lbs. per 100 birds and follow one week behind before moving the diet up by one pound per 100 birds per day,” he says.  “But keep in mind that a few years back it took eight to ten weeks to reach peak production. Now, this is achieved in just four to six weeks.”

According to Beckman, formulating the ration to meet calcium and phosphorus needs at peak production will ensure that a good calcium reserve is maintained throughout the lay cycle. Changes in formulation should be based on the lbs. per 100 daily consumption during hot weather or when consumption remains low for a two-week period.

“Early in lay” birds cannot consume enough feed for growth, maintenance and production.  Beckman says it is important to keep in mind that good body reserves are essential to maintain peaks and a sustained rate of lay.

“A flock being fed a 4% calcium diet, based on an intake of 22 lbs. per 100 birds, but only consuming 18 lbs reduces calcium consumption from the four grams required for good shell formation to only 3.2 grams or only 75% of total needs,” he says.

Beckman warns that if management “misses a beat,” the birds will miss one as well. He’s seen many water system sight tubes so corroded that the water level can’t be made out. “I can’t emphasize enough that water level should be checked daily.”

He says that the manager should start controlling case weight prior to reaching the case weight goal. Stimulate feed consumption early, and adjust temperature and number of feedings to help stabilize consumption. Take steps to prevent excess egg weight late in lay because any delay will reduce egg numbers.

Adult body weight should not exceed management standards. “Energy in the diet is the name of the game. Body weight should either be maintained or increased through peak production, so raise or lower energy levels to meet those standards,” says Beckman.

It is vital that all birds consume the same quantity of feed. Temperatures should be lowered to increase consumption and raised to lower feed intake, but air quality must be maintained. Beckman says that high-intake flocks can be controlled by removing feed in the middle part of the day, and by “stacking” more feed in the morning and evening periods only.

However, make sure the last feeding is within two hours of “lights out.”

“This gives the birds a good reserve of calcium for egg shell formation,” he says.

If consumption needs to be stimulated, do the reverse. Add a feed for one hour at around midnight – the coolest part of the day.

“Just one feeding or diet error can start to affect performance,” he says.

Dr. Bernie Beckman has been staff veterinarian at Hy-Line International for 13 years. He spoke on layer nutritional management at the 30th Poultry Service Industry Workshop in Banff, October 2005.  


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