Chicken that lay eggs are called layer hens. Layers – or hens that lay eggs are used in layer houses involved in egg production. Layers are purchased at the age of 18 weeks to 20 weeks and are ready to start their 60 week laying cycle. When you buy chickens you can usually specify at what age the birds will be. It is not often that a chicken farmer will buy hens at any other age except 18 weeks to 20 weeks. By this time the hens will be ready to lay and will have (or should have) had all the shots needed to avoid disease. The hens will be placed directly into the layer cages and once they have settled in – about 2 weeks, they will begin to lay eggs. This can happen quicker – but also slower – I had a flock that really took their time – 6 weeks before I was in fair production. This can hammer your cash flow as you feeding the hens throughout this period.
The hens should also have been debeaked if you are going to use battery cages – this means that they have had the tips of their beaks burnt – this takes the sharp edge off the beak so they will not hurt each other in the cages. As they will spend their lives quite cramped – up to 5 birds in section it is a necessary precaution. If you are planning to do free range eggs or organic egg farming you will need to specify to the supplier as generally all layers are de beaked. For free range and organic the regulations state that they may not have their beaks removed. Anyway – as a free range farmer you will want your chickens with their beaks so they can forage and peck – the hens will get a good portion of their diet from the fields in which they range. They will be eating lizards, small insects and even snakes – so they need their beaks. As the birds will not be cramped up there is very little chance of them harming one another.
The feed you give them should also be proper layer mash – in the case of cage eggs – if the pellets are too small or too large a hen without her beak will battle to pick the food up. In a layer cage the chicken food will be placed by hand (unless you have a fully automated feeding system on your layer cages) in the troughs at the front. The hens will be able to eat at any time they like – and as long as they have sufficient water they will eat. Generally hens lay in the early hours of the morning between first light and 11am – if you are in a very cold place they will lay a bit later – I say generally because there will always be chickens laying throughout the day and sometimes the night – especially if you are using your lights effectively. Over using a light programme can cause problems, so do your homework. Organic chickens may not have lights on in the house at night. Generally a farmer with cages will keep the lights on till eightish in the evening and then on again at fourish in the morning. What this does is keep the birds awake – and when they are awake they eat … and lay more eggs. Your egg collection, house cleaning, feeding times and light program should be as constant as possible – hens are creatures of habit – any disruption in their habits will result in a drop off of egg production. Any load bangs or rattling sheets will also disrupt them.
You can bank on about an 80 percent to 85 percent lay rate throughout the laying cycle. In the beginning you will only have a few eggs, and they will be tiny, but as the hens get older they will lay more and more. Towards the end of the 60 week laying periods you will see a drop in production and a lower quality of egg shell – often deformed and sometimes thin walled. At some point in time you will be spending more on chicken feed than you are making in profit. – this is the time to sell your layers for slaughter and buy a new batch of 18 to 20 week old hens (known as pullets). Keeping good records in a spreadsheet or in a poultry software program will allow you to track your lay rate and compare it to your feed costs – the graph will look something like this:
graph showing lay rate over a laying cycle – the little spike drops you see were disruptions – one night with huge winds and another when a predator got in.
The type of chicken food your layer hens eat will also determine how well they lay. The breed of hens for eggs is also specific – broiler chickens and layer chickens are bred for specific purposes. Someone coined the phrase for successful chicken farming – “it is all about breed and feed”. This may be a bit simplistic but breed and feed are the two most important factors when starting a cycle – good husbandry comes next. There are several good breeds of chickens for laying – speak to your supplier. Specify you want hens for egg production when you buy chickens. Ask if they have had all their shots – and even better – find another egg farmer and ask him who he is buying from. As with all businesses – some guys provide better hens than others. In my experience it is very easy to get a horrible batch – and I have also ended up with male chickens (cocks) in my batch. Remember not to place the new birds too close to older layers to stop disease (I would go no closer than 48 meters – and that is between fences), and also remember to put vitamins in their water for the first few days – these are called stress packs and help the hens settle in. You will need to medicate them every six weeks or so – this is standard if you are using layer cages – you may be able to extend that to 8 weeks if they are free range. You will also have to occasionally give them some kind of deworming treatment – more especially if the they are free range chickens or even hens at a home coop, or organic…. read the instructions carefully – many of the medications and vaccines do not allow the the eggs to be consumed by humans for a number of days after medication. You may ask what you will do with the excess eggs in this period – boil them, crush them and give them back to the hens – shells and all – they just must not look like eggs or your hens will start to nail their own eggs.
Nest boxes for Free range egg farming
When you are doing free range egg farming or organic egg production you will not be able to use layer cages – you will need to use nest boxes for the hens to lay eggs in. You could do without them totally and allow the hens to lay on the floor – but this can prove problematic. Your eggs will be dirty in many cases, and collecting the eggs will take longer as they will be all over the place. Your breakage rate will also be a lot higher. Hens lay best in a warm, darkened area that is off the ground. This gives the hen a sense of security as she can see predators approaching. The safer and more comfortable your hens feel, the better your production will be.
24 hole nest box
Nest boxes are equally effective as layer cages, also allowing the easy collection of chicken eggs. Nest boxes can be used in small chicken houses or large poultry houses. Large poultry companies that produce day old chicks use nest boxes in the layer breeder houses and broiler breeder houses. This is because the hens need to have access to the cockerels – and that cannot happen if they are cooped up in cages. The boxes are generally placed in rows down the center of the house to allow the easy collection of eggs. In a free range layer house these are then sent for packing and weighing, and in a breeder house the eggs are sent to the hatchery where they are hatched and sold as day olds. Or in the case of layers hatched and placed in a rearing house until they are about 18 weeks old – and then sold as pullets to layer farmers.
Nest boxes used in free range egg farming and breeder houses come in various sizes – the egg boxes, or layer boxes for egg laying come with different amounts of “holes” this is where the hens lay the eggs. In an intensive chicken house and a free range poultry house you can have up to 8 hens per hole. The cost of nest boxes changes with the steel price – as does the price of layer cages and battery cages. Common size are 10 hole,12 hole, and 24 hole. The boxes should be galvanised and made of sturdy steel. If they are not galvanised they will not last like they should – Chicken urine is highly corrosive and will quickly eat through unprotected steel – painting is an option – the painted boxes are much cheaper, but you will need to repaint at the end of every cycle – especially at the base of the legs.They should have adjustable legs and an anti perch mechanism on the roof of the nest. This will stop the birds sitting on the roof and messing on the box – which will in turn prolong the life of you nest box. Remember chickens like to be up – they like to see what is happening – and the top of your nestbox is the perfect place for this.
The bottom of each “hole” or nest should have shavings in. These will be on top of the nest box plate (a small galvanised plate that can easily be removed and replaced) – creating a comfortable place for the hen to lay. It will also serve as cushioning for the eggs and stop them from rolling and cracking as other birds use the nest. The nest needs to be replaced regularly as it will get dirty. This dirt is transferred onto the eggs – and it is a real pain to clean eggs without damaging the waxy protective surface. Free range and organic farmers will not only have droppings to contend with – they will also get mud in the houses and nest boxes as the hens trek in and out of the house. This is unavoidable but there are some steps that can be taken – the first is regular cleaning. You could also make sure your range has grass on it – unscrupulous farmers have so called free range hens but when you look outside their houses at the range it is a dustbowl – which turns into a mud bath when it rains. The regulations and guidelines state you need 60% of the range covered in vegetation. having good ground cover will also slow disease down – open muddy patches are a great place for disease to breed. The skirting around your house, where there will be the most traffic, should be concrete – this will allow you to wash it down, which will in turn help with cleaner eggs.
Free range farmers and organic producers of eggs will have to think about perch space for their hens. While each nestbox has perches on the front of the box – there is not enough for the entire flock. A perch is a unit made up of steel that is used for the birds to sleep on at night. Perching is a natural thing for chickens. Perching allows a hierarchy to take place and gives them a sense of security – read better egg production. And if that is not reason enough, well you have to – it is in the regulations that free range and organically raised birds must have a perch. Ask your nest box manufacturer to give you a quote and to calculate how many you need. He will do this by calculating how many birds can perch on the nestboxes and see how many birds are short. He will also take into accout your birds per square meter – placing nest boxes takes up floor space and this has to be taken into account when calculating how many birds you can legally place in you house.
A word of warning when buying nest boxes – make sure the door to your hen house is big enough for them to be carried in – or alternatively ask the manufacturer to deliver them unassembled and put them together inside the chicken house. Set the height of the box so that the hens can easily jump on to the front perch space. A common problem is hens laying under the boxes often known as floor eggs – this is usually when you have insufficient nest boxes for the number of hens. Floor eggs have been shown , by numerous studies, to result in inferior chicks when breeding. To the egg producer they are just a pain to clean. The hens do not mind sharing their lay space and will lay eggs in a hole that already has eggs.
What is better layer cages or nest boxes? Depends what you wish to achieve. If you have no qualms about the way you farm your chickens then layer cages or battery cages will be the method to use – if you have a conscience or want to do free range eggs or organic chicken farming then you will have to use nest boxes. Both methods give excellent results – although nest boxes are a bit more work.
Chicken farming in South Africa is mostly intensive poultry farming. Organics in South Africa is not a big thing – although it is growing in popularity as the consumer wakes up to the cruel practices used in poultry farming.
Broiler farming is mostly done in closed houses – many of them closed environment houses. Up to 40 000 broiler chickens are kept in a poultry house that cram 15 broilers per square meter. The chickens are fed with automatic feeding systems, food comes from a silo and then fed to chain feeders or pan feeding systems. The water is supplied to the house from a header tank and the chickens drink from nipple drinkers or bell drinkers.
Layer farming – the production of eggs, works in a similar fashion. Lots of laying chickens in a small place – usually kept in layer cages. Although this form of farming is legal in South Africa – it is banned in the EU countries.
Organic farming requires the farm and the supply chain (feed etc) all conform with Organic practices. This for of farming requires space – lots of it – the chickens need to free range and the farm needs to produce a percentage of food on the farm.