Small scale flocks - Common questions asked and answered
SOURCE:-Poultry Pluimvee Bulletin Sept Vol 7/9-
My chickens aren’t laying eggs. Why?
While there are a number of reasons that could be responsible for hens not laying eggs, some are more com- mon than others. The small-scale farmer should first consider these when trying to fix the problem.
Declining day length
Short day lengths are one reason why birds may stop laying eggs. Poultry typically need 12 to 14 hours of light per day to stimulate egg production. For flocks on natural daylight, egg production will decline in the winter months and increase in the spring. Providing artificial light can correct this situation.
Hens are sensitive to day length, and particularly the direction in which day length is changing. Declining day lengths discourage egg production. It is not unusual for a flock owner to have hens go out of production in the latter part of summer and in the autumn because the days are getting shorter.
Commercial egg producers maintain egg production year round by using artificial lighting to give hens a long day length - no matter the season. A backyard flock owner can do the same thing if the flock roosts inside a building by keeping lights on long enough to simulate an appropriately long day length. A good rule of thumb is that the total length of light per day, both artificial and natural, should be no shorter than the longest natural day length the hens will experience. Therefore, the amount of artificial light needed will be minimal in summer and greatest in winter.
Nutrition is another issue to check in the cases of poor egg production. Hens should be fed a layer ration specifically formulated for egg layers. Layer diets typically have more protein, energy and calcium than meat bird diets to meet the de- mands that egg production places on the hen’s body.
Many smallholder flock owners don’t realise how much calcium a hen needs. The shell of each egg contains roughly 2 grams of calcium. Since the skeleton of a typical mod- ern egg-laying breed of hen only contains about 20 grams of calcium, each egg represents 10% of the hen’s total bodily calcium. While the hen’s skeleton acts as a calcium reserve to supply the demands of egg production, this reserve is rapidly depleted in the absence of an abundant calcium source in the feed eaten by the bird. In such a situation the hen will stop laying eggs. To maintain egg production, flock owners should feed only a prepared layer ration balanced to meet a hen’s nutritional requirements.
Occasionally, a feed mixing error causes important nutrients like salt to be left out of the diet. Insufficient dietary salt will depress egg production. Conversely, in some regions, well water may have too much dis- solved sodium, which also will de- press egg production.
Some breeds of hens are prone to become broody (meaning they will try incubating eggs to make them hatch) and when this happens, they stop laying. They are more likely to become broody if allowed to accumulate eggs in a nest. To avoid this, pick up eggs at least once a day, which is also important to preserve the safety and quality of eggs for human consumption.
If the housing facilities allow for it, moving hens to different living quarters periodically disrupts their attachment to specific nesting sites.
After a hen has been producing eggs for several months, she becomes increasingly likely to moult - shedding old feathers and growing new ones. Moulting and egg production are not mutually compatible, so when moulting occurs, egg production stops. The rest from egg laying al- lows the hen to restore its plumage condition. At the same time, the hen’s reproductive tract is rejuvenated, allowing it to increase its rate of egg production and produce higher quality eggs when it returns to lay. Under natural day lengths, moulting tends to coincide with the change in season so that hens moult in the autumn after they cease egg production due to declining day lengths. In these circumstances, it is normal for all the hens in a flock to go out of production and moult more or less in synchrony. However, if artificial lighting is provided, a hen may moult at any time of year and not in synchrony with other hens. If this happens, she should return to lay in several weeks.
A hen can live for many years. It is not unusual for a backyard flock owner to keep several generations of birds and lose track of how old some hens are. Much as in other species, an ageing hen will eventually stop producing eggs.
Many poultry diseases affect egg production. Often the birds show symptoms of illness, but sometimes not. If a disease is suspected, it is important to consult a poultry veterinarian without delay. A timely diagnosis may allow effective treatment for some diseases.
In the case of certain virulent dis- eases such as highly pathogenic Avian Influenza, a speedy diagnosis may prevent losses of whole flocks in entire regions, and minimise the risk of zoonotic transmission of deadly disease from chickens to humans.
Why are my chickens losing feathers?
Feathers on chickens provide protection and insulation for the body. Too much feather loss makes it more likely that injuries will occur to the exposed flesh resulting in infections or bruising. Excessive feather loss can also result in higher energy utilisation requirements to maintain body temperature. As a result, birds often require more feed.
This condition can also adversely affect feed conversion and result in greater feed costs. There are several possible reasons why chickens may be losing feathers, including inadequate nutrition, feather pecking, moulting, disease and stress.
Good feather growth and maintenance requires adequate amounts of proteins, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. A well-balanced poultry feed formulated for appropriate age and type of bird will assure the flock is receiving the necessary nutrients for feather growth and maintenance. Diets formulated specifically for egg production or meat production, and for the appropriate age of the bird, offer the best feeding programs for your flocks. Birds kept for egg pro- duction require different levels of protein, energy and minerals com- pared to meat producing birds. To be sure your birds are properly fed, it is best to purchase poultry feed formulated for the type and age of bird kept.
Feather Pecking and Pulling
Loss of feathers from birds can be associated with feather pecking and pulling by other members of the flock. This can also be the result of poor nutrition as inadequate intake of nutrients can trigger this type of behavior.
Feather pecking and pulling can be a learned behavior and is usually the result of one, or a few members of the flock, exhibiting this behavior. Birds are curious animals by nature and will pick at objects that attract their attention. Should their attention focus on the feathers of their flock mates and pecking/pulling begin, it can become a habit that spreads to other members of the flock.
Birds are also somewhat territorial and pecking/pulling of feathers can be a manifestation of this behavior. If feather loss is observed with only a few members of the flock rather than all the birds, it is likely the result of these types of behavior. Observe the birds for a period of time and determine if certain birds are being overly aggressive or have developed feather-pulling behavior. If so, remove the bird(s) instigating the problem from -the rest of the flock. A few weeks in isolation may reduce this behavior. If not, the remedy may require permanent removal from the flock. For flocks where pecking and pulling are chronic, beak trimming may be done at about six weeks of age by removing about 3 mm from the tip of the upper beak. This can be done using a toenail clipper, but care must be taken not to injure the tongue of the bird.
Disease and Stress
It is important for your birds to have good quality feathering. Unhealthy birds or birds that are stressed may also exhibit feather loss. Stressful conditions such as heat, cold, dis- ease, and not enough feed and water can result in feather loss and poor feather quality. Good management programs, adequate feed and water and minimising stressful conditions will help assure strong feathers and a healthy flock.
What environmental temperatures are acceptable for poultry?
The environmental temperature requirements for birds decrease as they mature. Chicks, poults and ducklings are incapable of maintaining a steady body temperature when they hatch. Body temperature regulation develops between 10-14 days of age depending on the breed and species. Bird body temperatures are higher than that of mammals and for chickens it typically is around 40oC. Since young birds cannot maintain their body temperatures, they are dependent on room temperature. Typically we look for a floor temperature of 32-35°C for optimum brooding conditions. This temperature can be reduced 2 degrees each week until a temperature of 21 degrees is reached. By this time the birds should have significant feather coverage, which will insulate their body, keeping the warmth in and the cold out. At this point they should be able to withstand some of the variations experienced in daily temperatures. In winter, efforts should be made to keep birds inside shelters that will prevent drafts and hold in heat but at the same time provide good air quality.
Are males needed for egg production?
No. This is a common misunderstanding. Hens will lay eggs in the absence of a rooster. However, if hatching eggs are the goal, then a rooster will be needed to obtain fertilised eggs.
How can I prevent my backyard poultry from attracting rodents and insects?
Maintaining a clean environment not only helps to keep the birds healthy, but also prevents the attraction of vermin to areas where poultry are kept. Feed supplies should be stored in a sealed container.
Proper disposal of dead birds and manure are also good preventative measures. If rodents become a problem, bait stations should be placed around the area to control these populations.
How can chickens be sexed?
When my baby chicks grow up, will they be boys or girls, roosters or hens, lay eggs to eat or crow endlessly in the early morning hours? Not wanting to watch excess roosters fight and possibly injure each other in the hustle to establish dominance in their little world, or simply wanting to have a flock of only hens to gather the eggs each day for the family to eat. These questions and concerns are important for the smallholder chicken grower who tries to ‘sex their chickens before they hatch’, or grow up in this case. Sexing baby chicks is not an easy process.
All in all, the best way to sex chickens in the smallholder flock is to watch them grow. Feed and water them, observe them and enjoy them while they mature. As they develop, changes will become obvious as the males will begin to act manly and their voices will change from the chirping common to young chicks to attempted crows. The young males’ feathers will also change from the round oval-shaped feathers common to hens and young birds to the shiny, more narrow and pointed feathers found on their necks and at the base of their tails. Additionally, the combs of the young roosters will begin to develop at an earlier age than they will in females. In most breeds of chickens with large combs, this is a very obvious distinction between young roosters and hens as they are maturing. In short, enjoy the birds and watch them grow. This is definitely the most enjoyable method when establishing a backyard flock.