Maintaining mechanical nests

‘Automatic’ doesn’t mean ‘hands-off’ when it comes to mechanical nests
David Engel, Cobb-Vantress
Thursday, 05 January 2017
By David Engel, Cobb-Vantress
David Engel notes that close attention to detail can help achieve a high-performing flock that produces clean, high-quality eggs.
David Engel notes that close attention to detail can help achieve a high-performing flock that produces clean, high-quality eggs.
As the broiler breeder industry has evolved, there has been considerable change in equipment. A large percentage of production houses have moved from manual egg collection to mechanical systems based on a community nest or an individual, single-hole system.

When mechanical nests were first introduced, many people began referring to them as ‘automatic’ nests.  While the term technically applies to mechanical nests, they still require a lot of human involvement to operate efficiently.

Key to achieving outstanding performance with mechanical nests is the proper training and rearing of the females. This should start in the pullet barn, by placing slat sections, or perches, to help get the birds used to going up on to the slats.  

The training should continue in the laying barn by routinely walking the birds to encourage them to move on to the slats and towards the nests.  The females should also be in the right condition at lighting and carrying the proper amount of fleshing and fat reserve, to help them come into production with the correct nesting behavior.

Most mechanical nests are placed on slat sections, which play an important role in how the nests perform.  Make sure slat areas are not too tall; 20-25 cm (8-10 inches) is a good height.  Anything taller will discourage birds from jumping up from the scratch area, and a step or ramp would be useful in helping the birds move up on to the slat.

The nests should be down and open for the females to enter one week before the expected first egg.  This will be approximately one week after light stimulation, which gives the pullets an opportunity to explore the nests and become comfortable using them.  Close the nests at night to help keep the nest pads clean, which will also prevent the eggs from becoming contaminated. This becomes even more important as we move into an era of antibiotic-free broiler production.    

Three areas of nest maintenance that have a huge impact are the nest pad, the curtain and the nest belt itself.  Nest pads must be clean, because if dirty, a bird may be less likely to use that nest box.  Secondly, if it is used, the egg laid on that pad will most likely be contaminated.  

As well, nest pads installed at the wrong angle will cause issues.  If the angle of the nest pad is not great enough, the eggs will not roll out of the nest box properly.  If the angle is too much, it will discourage hens from using that nest box.

On center belt nests, if the curtain that separates the nest box and the egg belt is missing or curled up where the hen can see the egg belt moving, hens are discouraged from utilizing the nest box.  If multiple nests are affected, you will soon see many of the hens laying their eggs outside the nest.

Egg belts should always be kept clean and in good repair.  A belt that is not clean will often have an odour that the hens do not like and will keep them from using the nests. If the edges of the belts become frayed, the edges can rub the hen while the belt is running and cause her to leave the nest.

Producers should have a consistent program for running egg belts.  It is best not to run the belts until you see 10 to 15 eggs.  When starting the belt, run it slowly late in the afternoon.  A rapidly moving belt creates excessive vibration, which scares the birds out of their nests. By slowing down the speed of the egg belt, you are less likely to scare the birds out of the nests.

Once the daily production reaches 5 per cent, run the belts at noon and again later in the day, around 5 p.m.  When production reaches 20 per cent, go to more frequent gatherings.  A good rule of thumb is to gather eggs at 8 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.  This will help acclimatize the birds to the sound and vibration of the belt.  Multiple, consistent gatherings can prevent eggs from building up on the belt and also allow for an accurate daily count of egg production.

It is very important to accurately calculate and plan the nest space required.  With a community style nest, a good rule is no more than 48 birds per meter of nest space.  With a single-hole nest, allow for a maximum of 5 hens per hole, which will give the hens enough space to lay their eggs in the nest.

Other considerations
1.    Correct equipment layout:
  1. With a community nest system: have a mix of feed lines in the scratch area and on the slats Water lines approximately 60 cm (24 inches) from the nest entrance, and adequate spacing between water and feed lines to allow the birds to comfortably use them
  2. With individual nest systems,  have an adequate landing area from the front edge of the slat to the nest of 35-40 cm (14 -16 inches).   The distance from the back of the nest to the feeder and the feed to the drinker line should be at least 45-60 cm (18-24 inches), and the height from the slat to the bottom of the feeder should be 20-22 cm (8-9 inches)
2.    Ventilation:
  1. High temperatures on the slats can stop the hens going into the nest
  2. Improper inlet pressure can cause air to enter the nest at a rate that causes a draft, forcing the hen out of the nest
3.    Light intensity and distribution:
  1. A minimum of 60 lux (6 FC) at bird level is desired, but an approximate six-fold increase in intensity from the brightest spot in rearing to the darkest spot in laying is needed
  2. No more than a 20 per cent difference in intensity across the barn
Close attention to these details will help achieve a high-performing flock producing clean, high quality eggs.

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