Q&A on back­yard FLOCKS

A quick look at com­mon prob­lems

The Poultry Bulletin - - Q&A ON BACKYARD FLOCKS - This is an edited ex­tract of an ar­ti­cle dis­trib­uted by the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia’s Col­lege of Agri­cul­tural and En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ences

WWhy are my chick­ens not lay­ing eggs?

ith many peo­ple keep­ing chick­ens to pro­duce eggs to eat, many back­yard flock own­ers want to know why their hens stop lay­ing eggs. There are many rea­sons for this and all can­not be an­swered here. How­ever, some causes are more com­mon than oth­ers and the flock owner should con­sider these in find­ing a so­lu­tion.

De­clin­ing day length

Short day lengths are one rea­son why birds may stop lay­ing eggs. Poul­try typ­i­cally need 12 to 14 hours of light each day to stim­u­lated egg pro­duc­tion. For flocks on nat­u­ral day­light, egg pro­duc­tion will de­cline in win­ter and in­crease in spring. Re­duc­ing day length can ini­ti­ate moult dur­ing which egg pro­duc­tion stops. Pro­vid­ing ar­ti­fi­cial light can cor­rect this sit­u­a­tion.

When it comes to lay­ing eggs, hens are sen­si­tive to day length, and par­tic­u­larly to 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 avoid this prob­lem and 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 much 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.

Im­proper nu­tri­tion

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 de­mands that egg pro­duc­tion places on the hen’s body.

Hens need a bal­anced

and ad­e­quate diet to main­tain egg pro­duc­tion. Each egg con­tains sig­nif­i­cant amounts of protein and en­ergy, which must first be eaten by the hen as part of its daily food in­take. Too lit­tle di­etary en­ergy or an im­bal­ance of amino acids can cause de­pressed egg pro­duc­tion.

Many back­yard 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 mod­ern egglay­ing 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 this 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, or at least pro­vide a par­tic­u­late source of cal­cium, e.g. suit­ably sized ground lime­stone or oys­ter shell that the birds can eat se­lec­tively ac­cord­ing to their needs. The layer ra­tion or cal­cium source should be avail­able from a lo­cal feed sup­ply store.

Brood­i­ness

Some breeds of hens are prone to be­come broody, mean­ing they will try in­cu­bate eggs to make them hatch. When this hap­pens, they stop lay­ing eggs. They are more likely to be­come broody if al­lowed to ac­cu­mu­late eggs in a nest. The prob­lem is most preva­lent dur­ing Spring un­der nat­u­ral day­light as the hens come into pro­duc­tion due to the stim­u­lat­ing ef­fects of in­creas­ing day length. To avoid this, it is best to pick up eggs at least once a day to pre­vent the hen from build­ing a clutch. Daily egg gath­er­ing is also an im­por­tant prac­tice to pre­serve the safety and qual­ity of eggs for hu­man con­sump­tion.

Moult

Af­ter a hen has been pro­duc­ing eggs for sev­eral months, she be­comes in­creas­ingly likely to moult. Moult­ing and egg pro­duc­tion are not mu­tu­ally com­pat­i­ble, so when moult­ing oc­curs,→

egg pro­duc­tion ceases. The rest from egg-lay­ing al­lows the hen to re­store its plumage con­di­tion by shed­ding old feath­ers and grow­ing new ones. 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 hens moult in 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 synch with other hens. If this hap­pens, she should re­turn to lay in sev­eral weeks.

Age

Ahen 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 even­tu­ally will lose its abil­ity to be re­pro­duc­tively ac­tive and stop pro­duc­ing eggs.

Dis­ease

Many poul­try dis­eases will af­fect egg pro­duc­tion. Of­ten birds show symp­toms of ill­ness, but some­times they do 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 dis­eases such as highly pathogenic bird flu, 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 do chick­ens lose 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 of the tis­sues. In ad­di­tion, ex­ces­sive feather loss can re­sult in higher en­ergy util­i­sa­tion needed to main­tain body tem­per­a­ture. As a re­sult, birds with ex­ces­sive feather loss of­ten re­quire more feed to pro­duce the en­ergy nec­es­sary to com­pen­sate for the heat lost from the ex­posed ar­eas.

This con­di­tion can also ad­versely af­fect feed con­ver­sion and re­sult in greater feed costs. Pre­vent­ing ex­ces­sive feather loss can, there­fore, have an im­por­tant im­pact on flock health and prof­itabil­ity.

There are sev­eral pos­si­ble rea­sons why chick­ens may be los­ing feath­ers, in­clud­ing in­ad­e­quate nu­tri­tion, feather peck­ing, moult­ing, dis­ease and stress.

In­ad­e­quate Nu­tri­tion

Good feather growth and main­te­nance re­quires ad­e­quate amounts of pro­teins, amino acids, vi­ta­mins and min­er­als. It is not unusual to trace a feath­er­ing prob­lem in a back­yard flock to in­ad­e­quate feed­ing. A well bal­anced poul­try feed for­mu­lated for ap­pro­pri­ate age and type of bird will as­sure that the flock is re­ceiv­ing the nec­es­sary nu­tri­ents to main­tain feather growth and main­te­nance.

Feather peck­ing and pulling

Loss of feath­ers from birds can some­times 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 be­hav­iour. If, how­ever, the ap­pro­pri­ate feed is be­ing pro­vided and feather loss is oc­cur­ring, it may be a re­sult of ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour by some mem­bers of the flock.

Feather peck­ing and pulling can be a learned be­hav­iour and is usu­ally the re­sult of one, or a few mem­bers of the flock, ex­hibit­ing this be­hav­iour. 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 be­hav­iour. 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 be­hav­iour. Ways of deter­min­ing if feather loss is a re­sult of this type of ac­tiv­ity is to ob­serve the birds for a pe­riod of time and de­ter­mine if cer­tain birds in the flock→

are be­ing overly ag­gres­sive with their flock mates or have de­vel­oped feather pulling be­hav­iour. If so, the best rem­edy is to re­move the bird(s) in­sti­gat­ing the prob­lem from the rest of the flock. A few weeks in iso­la­tion may re­duce the ex­pres­sion of this be­hav­iour. If not, the rem­edy for this prob­lem may re­quire per­ma­nent re­moval from the flock. For flocks of birds where peck­ing and pulling are chronic prob­lems, beak trim­ming at an early age may be nec­es­sary. Beak trim­ming may be done at about six weeks of age by re­mov­ing about 3/16 in. from the tip of the up­per beak. This can be done us­ing a toe nail clip­per, but care must be taken not to in­jure the tongue of the bird.

Moult­ing

Moult­ing is a nat­u­ral process whereby lay­ing birds will cease egg pro­duc­tion and lose feath­ers from their neck, breast and back ar­eas for a few weeks to a few months. Moult­ing oc­curs most of­ten in nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments where the birds are ex­posed to nat­u­ral day lengths. De­creas­ing length of day light in the fall will trig­ger the on­set of moult. It is nature’s way of pro­vid­ing lay­ing birds a rest pe­riod prior to the stim­u­lus for max­i­mum re­pro­duc­tive per­for­mance in the spring.

Moult­ing is elim­i­nated in com­mer­cial flocks by pro­vid­ing long day lengths us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial lights for ap­prox­i­mately 14 hours ev­ery day. Many back­yard flocks are kept un­der nat­u­ral day light fluc­tu­a­tions and thus moult­ing can be a com­mon cause of feather loss.

Dis­ease and Stress

Un­healthy birds or birds that are un­der stress­ful con­di­tions may also ex­hibit feather loss. Us­ing best man­age­ment prac­tices and ob­serv­ing your birds for pos­si­ble dis­ease con­di­tions can be im­por­tant for your flock. Stress­ful con­di­tions such as heat, cold, dis­ease, and lack of ad­e­quate amounts of feed and water can re­sult in feather loss and poor feather qual­ity with your birds.

What en­vi­ron­men­tal tem­per­a­tures are best?

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 40°C. Since these young birds can­not main­tain their body tem­per­a­tures, they are de­pen­dent on room tem­per­a­ture. If the room is too cool, then their body tem­per­a­ture will drop, and if the room is too hot their body tem­per­a­ture will rise. 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 time, ef­forts should be made to keep birds in­side shel­ters that will pre­vent drafts and hold in heat but at the same time pro­vides 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 do I deal with ro­dents and in­sects?

Main­tain­ing a clean en­vi­ron­ment not only helps keep birds healthy, it is a cru­cial to pre­vent at­tract­ing 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.

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