Three major factors have helped to make commercial poultry farming the multi-billion dollar industry it is today:
- Scientific research
Industry forecasts for 2017 are positive.
This is after 2016 was characterized by significant slumps in the production values of both broilers ($25.9 billion — down 10% from 2015) and eggs ($6.48 billion — down 52% from 2015), despite production levels being higher than they were in 2015.
The optimistic expectations for 2017, at least for broiler production, were based on anticipation that feed prices would be lower.
Poultry meat and eggs are important sources of animal protein and are widely consumed around the world. In fact, figures from 2016 suggest that over ⅓ of global meat production was poultry.
Starting a chicken farming small business does therefore sound like an idea worth your time, effort and resources.
If you feel this way, there are several things you must know:
1. Selection of stock based on your chicken rearing objectives
The kind of stock you will acquire for your chicken farming small business will depend on the objectives of your entrepreneurial venture. There will be different stock requirements if you intend to provide the market with a supply of fresh eggs as compared to if your aim is to supply chicken meat.
In starting any chicken project, the most economic and safest way forward for you will be to invest in day-old baby chicks.
The chicks you buy should have been hatched from eggs laid by chicken free from Pullorum-typhoid (egg transmitted diseases which can be prevented by blood testing breeding stock) and where possible, stock vaccinated for Marek’s disease (a viral disease that causes tumor-like lesions in nerves and other internal organs, and which may see you lose >30% of your stock by the time the chicks are 20 weeks old).
When buying chicks you can either go for the straight-run or sexed (females or males) varieties.
Stock for egg production
There are two ways to acquire stock for egg production:
Purchasing day-old chicks
In this case you will purchase day-old healthy egger type chicks from a reputed hatchery; in most cases you will be supplied with 2–5% extra chicks. However, it is prudent to purchase 25% more birds in order to allow for mortality and culling.
Buying chicks is advantageous because it is quite unlikely that the chicks will bring a disease with them. These chicks will then grow up around people they are familiar and comfortable with.
The main disadvantage of acquiring chicks is that you will need to invest lots of time and effort in raising them to production age.
Characteristics of desirable day-old chicks:
- Bright round eyes, strong legs, and dry and soft feathers
- They shouldn’t be too small in size; ensure that there is uniformity in size
- They should be free from blemishes
Purchasing point-of-lay pullets
Here you will buy pullets that are ready to begin egg production. These pullets’ age can be between 20 and 22 weeks old although they are available between 6 and 22 weeks of age. After arriving on your farm they will be ready to start egg production within a few weeks.
Alternatively, you can go for older hens that are being discarded by commercial egg producers. The price you’ll pay in this case will be determined by these hens’ age, breed, strain and potential life as egg layers. It will however be unadvisable to go for hens that are ≥ 30 months old as these will be too aged and hence unreliable in as far as egg production is concerned; 18–24 months of age is desirable.
The hen breeds you can purchase:
In choosing hen breeds it is advisable to go for the commercial Leghorn-type egg-laying strains. These are widely available and are recognized as the best egg producers. Egg-producing chicken breeds are bred for optimal egg production; one bird is capable of producing up to 300 eggs annually.
If you desire to produce brown eggs you can go for heavier stain crosses.
You can also go for pure breeds like:
You can use these for both egg and meat production purposes.
Nevertheless, they won’t match the laying or growing capabilities that crosses provide, despite requiring more feed to produce a similar amount of eggs or gain a pound of weight. A dual purpose chicken can produce 200–250 eggs annually.
Stock for meat production
The main requirement for you here will be to identify stock that can optimally utilize its feed.
It is recommended to go for cross-breeds that feature combinations of Cornish, Plymouth Rock and New Hampshire blood lines. Under optimal conditions these crosses can weigh between 3–4 lbs. by the time they are 8 weeks old. These chickens also make for excellent fryers/broilers or roasters.
NB: Fryers/broilers are 7-week-old chickens while roasters are 14-week-old chickens.
Some of the other meat chicken breeds you can consider include:
- Hybrid varieties like Reds, Barred, Silvers, etc.
- Dual purpose varieties like Buffs, Barred Rocks, etc.
- Red Ranger
- Moyer’s Broiler/Roaster chicks aka Cornish Giants
- Moyer’s K-22 Red Broilers (Cockerels only)
2. Housing your chickens
The type of housing that you’ll provide for your chickens will be informed by the local climatic conditions, the desired type of production, and your budget.
The housing should satisfy five main requirements i.e.:
- The provision of optimal conditions for egg production and growth
- The ability to optimally protect your flock from wind, rain, and temperature extremes
- Provision of suitable ventilation to help dry up moisture and minimize the ammonia from the feces
- Conveniently allowing for an operator to care for the birds as well as to clean and sanitize the pen
- Be of just the right size for the number of chicken being reared — not too big to be unprofitable or too small to be cramped
Types of chicken houses that you can construct
There are mainly four types of chicken housing:
- Conventional enclosed houses with deep litter and mechanical ventilation e.g. a pole building layer house
- Semi-open houses i.e. naturally ventilated e.g. two-story cross ventilation building
- Movable/mobile houses e.g. a pasture pen
- Cages or batteries
Floor space requirements
With regards to chicken floor space you can follow the guideline below:
- Chicks ≤ 6 weeks of age — at least half a square foot per bird. A 6X8 ft room can house 100–200 chicks and a 15X15 ft room can house 400 chicks. If you’ll be having more than 200–300 chicks together in a room you should partition them apart.
- Chicks between 6–12 weeks old — 1 square foot per bird
- Growing pullets between 12–20 weeks old — 1½ to 2 square feet per bird
- Small breeds of laying hens (bantams) — 2 to 2½ square feet per bird
- Larger breeds of laying hens — 3 to 3½ square feet per bird
Nests for laying hens
You should provide laying hens with properly designed nests replete with clean litter. These can be individual or community nests.
An individual nest (or 1 square foot of community nest) can accommodate 4 hens; the nest should be at least 1 foot square and 1 foot high.
You can provide any size of community nest but you must ensure that at least two openings (8” X 8”) are provided for every 20 square feet of nest space i.e. a minimum of two holes per nest.
To darken the nests you can place a flap of cloth on each opening, ensuring that ⅔ of the opening is covered. Also, place a perch below the openings to help the hens get easy access to the nests.
You can also make simpler nests using pots or baskets. In this case the container will need to be clean and dry. You should then fill it up to ⅓ of its depth with a mixture of sand and ashes, and then fill the rest of it with soft nesting material, e.g. hay or straw, and which you’ll need to replace at least once per week.
Perches/Roosts for the hens
While roosts aren’t essential, having them is preferable.
Perches allow hens to rest during the night.
They also provide hens with an escape from disease and parasite attacks that can happen when resting on the floor. Roosts will in this case help to reduce the chances of external pests entering your hens’ feathers during the night.
You should provide pullets with 6 inches of roost space per bird after 6 weeks. Each adult chicken, on the other hand, should have 6”-8” of roost space.
The roosts should be of the right size; if they are too big or small the birds can fall.
If you’ll be using 2-inch lumber to make the roosts you should set them 13–15 inches apart.
Requirements for cages
Instead of providing conventional chicken coops you may decide to house your hens in cages housed in an open building or in a closed fan-ventilated shelter.
If this is your decision you will need to bear in mind the following:
- Your cages can be of the plastic or wire varieties. The latter are usually constructed of 1” by 2” welded wire
- While cages will make your care provision work easier, your hens will be more susceptible to the effects of extreme weather. You should therefore ensure that enough protection from wind, cold, and hot weather is provided
- The cage floor should be constructed with a slope of 2 inches per foot to allow the eggs to roll out properly. The floor should also extend 8 inches beyond the front of the cage, and have a curved lip, so that the eggs will stop gently
- Your cages can be of any size; you’ll however obtain the best results if cage depth doesn’t exceed 20 inches
- The most popular cage dimensions are 12” width X 18” depth X 14” height
- If you are growing Leghorn-type hens allow each of them 4 inches of cage front i.e. 3 hens in a 12”X18” cage. For larger birds the cage front should be 6 inches i.e. 2 hens in a 12”X18” cage
- In arranging the cages you can place 2 rows of cages back-to-back and have a line of feeders on the front of each cage row and a 1½- to 2-inch deep V-shape water trough or line of poultry drinking cups at the back between the cage rows
- Have your feed troughs be about 4 inches deep, 6–7 inches wide at the top, and with a slope inward to between 3 and 4 inches at the bottom. To reduce food wastage have the inside top of the feed trough fitted with a 1½” to 2” lip
3. Brooding the chicks
Thanks to the massive success that has been achieved with artificial brooding of chicks, natural brooding is now infrequently used.
To achieve successful artificial brooding yourself you’ll need to make the following preparations:
Providing suitable bedding material (for a new chick house)
- You will need to select appropriate bedding materials. Sawdust and wood shavings are advisable with wood shavings being desirable as they won’t mat down unlike materials like straw and hay. Wood chips will be too big. Wire mesh floors will be inappropriate; they won’t allow the chickens to scratch and they will lack the beneficial microorganisms that contribute to the overall health of growing birds.
- You will do well to manage the bedding as a compost pile that has a carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio of 30:1. The easiest way to determine if the ratio is right will be through smell; the smell of ammonia will tell you that there isn’t enough carbon to soak up the excess nitrogen. Having a supply of clean wood shavings nearby will be vital. You will regularly throw some shavings on typical damp spots like around waterers and under the lamps to restore a desirable C:N ratio, and to facilitate the bedding’s composting upon injection of air when stirring the bedding.
Preparation for the chicks arrival (for the second and subsequent broodings)
- One week to the arrival of the new chicks you should remove all the old litter in the chick house and then clean and thoroughly wash the brooding area including the walls and ceiling, as well as the brooding equipment
- In sanitizing the house and the equipment you should use an effective disinfectant. Some options include a lye solution, phenol, chlorine, iodine, or quaternary ammonium compounds. Caution will be necessary; lye shouldn’t be used on metal equipment and you should check to see that the ingredients for the other disinfectants won’t be toxic for you and the chicks.
- When the house is fully dry you should install new bedding. This will be 2–6 inches of dry litter, and which is typically covered with construction paper or newspaper for the first few days.
- However, if the chick house can support accommodate deep litter, and you have been effectively managing the current bedding, you won’t need to replace this bedding. All you’ll need to do before the new chicks arrive is wet down the bedding with water, stir it with a fork or rake, and then add a couple of inches of fresh shavings on top of it. Incidentally, the deeper the bedding, the better the composting of the litter material. Deep bedding also better supports an ecosystem that will provide your chicks with bonus food.
4. Production of pullets
When the chicks are between 3 and 22 weeks of age you should only allow them natural daylight or provide them with decreasing artificial light, using a time clock to control the same.
You should still retain the brooder in place for a week after the heat has been turned off; you can either raise the heat source against the ceiling or remove it completely.
This is the time when the chicks should be taught how to roost, something you can do by feeding and watering the birds in and around the brooding area until the birds get used to the roosting process.
During this growing period it will be of utmost importance for you to maintain dry litter, more so if you’ll not be using a Coccidiosis preventive drug. This will mean being particularly intent on ensuring that the waterers are always placed on top of platforms and that the birds can’t have access to the areas under the platforms.
Key details about the growing stage
This stage is when the chicks are between 6–12 weeks of age.
At this time birds that were being housed in cages or battery brooders should be transferred to larger enclosures such as litter type houses or large coops.
The main requirements for the birds at this time are feed, water, required vaccines/medications, and adequate physical space to accommodate body expansion.
The type of feed you’ll provide is also important. The recommended feed at this stage is referred to as ‘layer grower’.
You should ensure that the mortality rate from brooding to growing does not exceed 5% for the entirety of this period.
Key details about the pullet stage
The term ‘pullet’ refers to a young hen that is between 12–20 weeks.
At this time you should feed your birds on ‘pullet developer’ as they continue to grow into young laying chickens.
The birds will be maturing and you’ll therefore notice an increased demand for feed, water and floor space. The type and amounts of feed you provide, and the adequacy of fresh water, will contribute to the ultimate egg-laying productivity of the hens.
Regularly monitoring the birds by random weighing will be an important source of information as to whether you should increase or decrease the daily feed ration. You’ll do this by picking up a bird with two hands and feeling its weight.
This weight should be at least within the provided standard as indicated in the table below. This table also shows the ages when birds’ weight deficiencies can be corrected.
Note that the weight of a bird has a direct relationship to its level of productivity at the time of egg production. You should therefore ensure that your birds attain and maintain the right body weight for optimal egg production.
5. Feeding your chicken
In as far as raising chickens is concerned, feed will account for 70% of the cost you will incur.
The simplest way to feed your flock of chickens will be to purchase complete mash rations.
After you have gained knowledge and experience in the nutrient requirements of poultry and applicable feedstuffs you can begin trying to mix your own feeds. This will involve milling and mixing grains and other feed ingredients to an exact formulation, and even pelletizing the mixture to assure efficient feeding.
The table below shows the suggested rations, protein levels and approximate required amounts of feed that your birds will need at different ages.
With regards to protein content, starter rations are usually 24% protein, grower 20% protein, and finisher 18% protein. Layer rations are usually about 16% protein. Feeding your chickens more protein than is necessary is unadvisable because protein is a costly feed component.
There are three simple practices that will help you to achieve efficiency when feeding your chickens:
- Adjusting the heights of the feed troughs so that the chickens can feed comfortably
- Keeping the troughs at half-full so as to prevent wastage
- Emptying and cleaning the troughs periodically to avoid stale or moldy feed from accumulating
It’s important to ensure that your chickens are always provided with adequate amounts of fresh feed. If they go without feed for 6 hours you will observe a drop in production. If they are starved for 12 hours you will observe molting of wing feathers.
Feeding the layers
The table below shows the appropriate feeds for the different growth stages of layers:
Feeding the broilers
There are two types of broiler chicken feed:
- Starter Feed for chicken between the age of 1 day and 4 weeks (Crude protein content = 22–24%)
- Finisher/Fattening feed for chicken between the age of 5 weeks and 7 weeks (sale) (Crude protein content = 19–20%)
You’ll need to feed your chicken spontaneously from when they are a day old to until they reach marketing age
You can supplement the complete feed with pasture or green chop (lawn clippings); your chickens will get the most benefit from young, tender plants rather than from old, fibrous plants.
In case you have a home poultry flock you can feed your chickens on leftovers from your table — but not excessively. There are also some items you’ll need to omit from your leftovers:
- Raw potato peels — chicken can’t digest these; you’ll need to cook them first
- Rotten stuff shouldn’t be fed to the birds
- Strong-tasting foods like onions, garlic or fish shouldn’t be fed to the birds as these can flavor the eggs and meat
- Never feed table scraps to a commercial flock
Pasturing can start at any age just as long as the weather is favorable.
Your pasture should provide the chicken with a good mix of grass and legumes; the forage species isn’t of much importance. In as far as the forage is concerned the quality should be similar to what other grazing animals will require.
The following pointers will be helpful:
- Chickens like eating weeds; they are preferred next to legumes
- A pasture with just one type of forage species isn’t recommended
- One acre of good pasture will serve 400 chickens
- Chickens prefer pasture plants shorter than other grazing animals. You’ll therefore need to mow your pasture down to between 2–6 inches before allowing the chicken there
- Alternatively, you can have the chickens follow the other livestock in feeding on an area of pasture. The chickens will also benefit from the manure piles which will provide them with essential vitamins and other nutrients
- You should ensure that there are no poisonous plants on the pasture
Nevertheless, you should ensure that the chickens don’t eat too much of these fresh materials as they are low in energy and their consumption reduces the amount of feed that the hens will eat.
You should also provide your chickens with the following types of feed:
To feed the chicken on whole grain you just need to spread it on the litter. Doing so is recommended because it will encourage the birds to scratch in the litter, effectively helping to maintain it in top condition.
You should provide just enough grain though; the chicken will grow excessively fat if you offer too much. In this case the following pointers will come in handy:
- If you are using a 15% protein-laying feed don’t feed more than ½ pound of grain per 10 hens daily
- You can feed the chicken a 20–22% protein-laying mash, free choice, with grain in feed troughs. Alternatively, you can spread 1¼ pounds of grain per 10 birds on the litter
- A rule of thumb is to feed the amount of grain that the chicken can consume in 20 minutes
When feeding whole grain or grass to your chickens you should also remember to provide them with grit. Grit is available in chick or hen size.
Grit and silica are necessary for chickens’ digestive process as they serve as food-grinding stones in their digestive systems.
It won’t be necessary to continuously feed this to the chicken but you’ll need to have it available, free choice, 2 or 3 days monthly. Grit should be provided as soon as the chicks arrive.
Your egg-laying hens will require large amounts of calcium in order to produce egg shells.
To provide it you can free choice feed calcium grit or oyster shells to your chickens. Alternatively, you can save egg shells and feed them back to the hens.
Nevertheless, laying mashes containing 2½% to 3½% calcium supply will supply your chickens with adequate amounts of calcium.
You can purchase commercial feeds that are in the form of pellets or crumbles. Nevertheless, while these are highly acceptable, they have little advantage over mash.
On the other hand, using them can help to reduce feed wastage or wind loss.
Tips for healthy feeding
- You shouldn’t feed laying mash to chicks or growing poultry since this feed contains high levels of calcium that can cause kidney damage to the birds
- You may consider using feed containing Coccidiosis preventive drugs with your meat poultry and laying replacement stock. You must however ensure that the drug to be used is approved for the type of poultry you want to feed it to
- Always pay attention to the information provided on feed packaging to identify the type of feed contained and to what ages of poultry this should be fed to i.e. starter, grower, laying feed, etc.
The following are tables illustrating how you can mix and formulate feeds for the different stages growth stages of your layers and broilers:
6. Cannibalism among your chickens and how to handle it
Chickens naturally start pecking soon after they are hatched and they carry on with this behavior for the rest of their lives.
Pecking is useful because it helps chickens to learn how to eat with minimal training. Nevertheless, if birds start pecking each other the consequences can be severe or fatal.
The following are the factors that contribute to cannibalism:
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Excess light
- Excessive heat (hot weather)
- Blood on injured birds
- Inadequate eating or drinking space
Cannibalism is difficult to stop once it has started. You can however try to manage it by:
1. Managing the contributing factors described above
2. Debeaking / beak trimming
You can do beak trimming regardless of a chicken’s age. Using a heated blade or debeaker you should remove about ⅔ of the upper beak and ⅓ of the lower beak. You should then cauterize the cut to prevent regrowth, bleeding, or infection.
3. Using anti-pick devices
There are several devices that you can use to prevent picking in adult birds including bits, specs, and pick guards of various designs. You can easily attach these on the chickens without using any special instrument.
With that being said, you should note that debeaking will prevent a chicken from foraging on plants and critters; a debeaked chicken cannot make use of pasture. You should therefore not debeak your birds if you wish them to utilize these sources of nutrition.
Again, there’s no need to debeak chickens that are in non-caged systems; cannibalism isn’t a problem in an open system because the chickens are neither stressed nor bored and nutrition deficiencies shouldn’t be an issue.
7. Chicken meat production
For your meat chicken farming small business to thrive you need to ensure that you have achieved just the right blend with regards to:
- Your choice of stock
- The environmental conditions
- The feed provided
- The overall care you provide to the birds
Just like the laying birds, your meat stock will also be housed in litter floor housing. Everything that has previously been described with regards to the requirements for building preparation, floor space, brooder operation, and early management will also apply to these birds.
You should however provide special fryer rations.
The average growth cycle for a broiler is usually 6 weeks. This cycle’s length is influenced by the extent to which the feeding diet is balanced. Your considerations during this cycle will be the cost of feed per 1Kg. of meat produced, the feed-to-meat conversion ratio, and the sale price of broiler meat.
The main factors that will affect the growth of your broilers are feed quality, heat regulation, veterinary/sanitary control, and bird density within the breeding houses.
From the meat-type cross-bred poultry stock you acquire you can produce the following types of hens for commercial marketing:
Fryers — These are birds weighing between 3 and 5 pounds and which are marketed between 7 and 9 weeks of age. They are of either sex and have tender meat with soft, pliable, smooth-textured skin and flexible breastbone cartilage.
Cornish game hens aka Rock Cornish game hens — These are usually Plymouth Rock-Cornish cross. They are marketed at 1½ to 2 pounds live weight. Males are processed at 4–5 weeks while females are processed at 5–6 weeks.
Roasters — These weigh between 5 and 8 pounds and typically reach market weight between 12 to 15 weeks of age
Capons — These are surgically castrated cockerels and are typically sold as heavy roosters at 5 months of age.
Once your birds have reached the desired weight you can either process them at home or sell them to a commercial processing plant. Prior to processing them you should deprive them of feed 8–12 hours before they are killed.
You can also sell them as live birds in situations where consumers prefer to confirm the health of the chickens at the time of sale.
- Broilers have a 6–7 weeks growth cycle. This will allow you to do repeated production throughout the year
- You can place more broilers than layers in a shed
- Broilers have higher feed conversion efficiency (FCE) as compared to other birds or livestock. The FCE will depend on many factors including the birds’ age, feed quality, duration of lighting, etc.
- You will enjoy a fast return on investment when farming broilers
- There is high consumer demand and preference for broilers
8. Marketing your broilers
The procedure for home processing broilers
- You will kill the bird by cutting across the veins in the bird’s throat; you can make this cut from inside or outside the bird’s throat. You should then allow the blood to drain
- After bleeding the bird you should scald it by submerging it in 126°F-160°F water for about 30–75 seconds, being carefully to also immerse its wings and tail feathers into the water
- After scalding you should remove the bird’s feathers as quickly as possible; the higher the temperature of the water used, the faster the feathers can be removed
- After plucking you should remove the pin feathers and then singe the bird (by rotating it over a flame) to remove any hairs
- You should then wash the carcass with cold water, eviscerate (remove the internal organs), and then wash the carcass thoroughly with cold water
- If you are satisfied of its cleanliness you should chill the carcass in ice water and then store it in a refrigerator, or freezer in case the bird won’t be consumed immediately
- You should never store chickens above 40°F after you’ve eviscerated them
The typical marketing channels for broilers are as follows:
9. Egg production management issues for your chicken farming small business
When your laying chickens reach the age of 18 weeks you’ll need to move them to laying houses where they’ll start egg production. Initially the eggs will be small and unmarketable; it is not until the chickens are 22 weeks of age that commercial egg production will start proper.
Flocks are typically kept for one year of lay, i.e. 18 months of age, and can then be recycled (molted) at 65 weeks of age and then kept for an additional 35–40 weeks before being sold as fowl.
A chicken will need approximately 25 hours to get from the ovulation to the laying stage. Roughly 30 minutes after laying an egg the chicken will start making another one. Commercial chickens can produce up to 300 eggs annually.
The following are the areas of concern when it comes to egg production:
You should note the following:
- Under natural daylight conditions chickens typically lay most of their eggs during spring — as the days lengthen. You can achieve higher and more consistent egg production by providing artificial light. This will be of much importance during winter months when the market demand for eggs is especially strong.
- When providing lighting for laying hens, a rule of thumb you can follow is to ensure that the length of the light period should never be allowed to decrease.
- A minimum of 15 hours of light daily is recommended to prevent a production drop. You will therefore need to install supplemental lighting with a time clock. Set the time clock to come on at 5:30 am and off at 9:30 pm. If your chickens are housed in a closed house where they don’t get exposed to natural light the length of the artificial day should be between 16–17 hours.
- If you have a small flock you can install all-night lights. One of these (a 40-watt incandescent bulb) placed in the center of the pen will provide enough light for 100 chickens. Generally, 1 watt is enough for every 5 square feet of pen
- You should start providing artificial light when your pullets reach 22 weeks of age
Age and expected egg production
- You will get the best egg production from your chickens during their first production year, starting when they reach 22 weeks of age
- You can expect them to hit peak production (60–90%) at about 34 weeks of age
- Beyond this age the production will decline until a molt occurs
- Commercial flocks are typically processed for meat after 14–20 months of egg production — unless they are force molted
Molting (or feather loss and replacement) happens naturally in chickens with the frequency of this occurrence varying according to inheritance and environment. This process can take between 1–2 months in some egg-laying breeds and even longer in other breeds.
If you have breeds or strains that have been selected for high egg production the frequency of molting will be lower.
Chickens may molt if:
- their feed or water is withheld
- the weather is cold
- the light periods are decreasing
- there is a disease outbreak
In the event of a molt egg production will typically stop for 2–6 weeks.
In commercial flocks uniform molting is induced at regular intervals as a way of improving egg production and quality. It can also be used to briefly halt egg production when there is an overabundance in supply.
Forced molting is principally practiced in cooler, temperate areas.
If you have a small flock you can expect a pause in winter egg production accompanied by a molt. You can however prevent this to some extent by providing: constant feed and water, proper lighting, and sufficient protection from cold weather.
You can also expect random pauses in egg production with most hens some time after their first year of lay. Such pauses will recur periodically if you retain your chickens after they are past 2 years of age.
Broodiness, the behavior observed when chickens sit on their eggs, is desirable if you wish your hens to reproduce naturally.
This will however not augur well in a high egg production system (what this guide is based on) and you’ll therefore need to prevent it from happening.
Do this by placing a broody hen in a wire-floored cage for 5–7 days.
When you have poor layers in your flock, particularly those that are past 1 year of age, you may find their removal i.e. culling to be beneficial.
The presence of these poor layers will mean that you’ll be using feed on them but getting far less from the value of the eggs they’ll produce.
The culling of sick chickens shouldn’t be a matter of discussion though; you should immediately identify, remove, and dispose of all sick birds in your flock.
Other factors that will affect egg production are:
Body weight of the chickens
Generally, the optimal body weight for your chickens during the laying period should be 1.5Kg. This varies by breed though. You can expect lower production from both underweight and overweight birds. To correct this situation you’ll need to improve your management and also provide correct amounts of feed.
The climate of the area
The optimal temperature for egg production is between 11–26°C. When the temperature rises above 28°C the egg production and quality will decrease. You’ll experience about 10% reduction in production during seasonal temperature increases.
Also, if the humidity level exceeds 75% you will observe a reduction in egg production.
To assure optimal production your flock should be free from internal parasites (e.g. roundworms, tapeworms and caecal worms) and external parasites.
The mortality may rise due to predation, disease and high temperature. Mortality rates can be appreciated below:
Removal of dead birds
Dead birds should never be eaten or sold. You should collect dead birds on a daily basis and dispose of them by burning, composting, or other appropriate means.
Burying is an unacceptable way to get rid of these birds; composting is the best way to do it in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
Comparing a laying hen and a non-laying hen
Replacing your layers
You will implement the replacement stage in two phases as follows:
Pre-replacement phase — Here you will place a timely order for the baby chicks (replacement stock) that will replace the existing layers by the time they reach low productivity levels. You should place this order when the current layers are 80 weeks old. This will allow for hatching and shipping preparation, and for the brooding-growing-pullet stages.
Actual replacement or culling of layers that are 120 weeks old — You should make good arrangements to ensure that your old birds will be culled in a timely manner thereby avoiding unnecessary feed expenses. Such old layers are typically sold off. Nevertheless, if you have to keep them for a few weeks after the replacement stock has arrived, you can feed them on less costly feed.
How to achieve a balanced flock relative to egg size, egg quality and productivity
To do this you will need to start practicing periodic placement of new birds. What this means is having at least four different flocks (ages) on your chicken farm at any given time.
When you manage to do this you’ll need to keep the different flocks separate from one another for health reasons.
With such a system your chicken farming small business can be relied upon to produce different sizes and qualities of eggs, at different rates of production, relative to the respective ages of your flocks.
While restricting your farming to one age of chickens may be advantageous from a disease control standpoint, having multiple flocks will be effective from a marketing perspective as you’ll be able to meet virtually all of your customers’ needs with respect to different egg sizes and qualities.
10. Disease control and health management in your chicken farming small business
It is inevitable that you will incur some losses in your flock of chicken. When a disease strikes you can typically expect the following signs to manifest:
- Reduced egg production
- Reduced feed consumption
- A number of sick birds
- A number of dead birds
Upon gathering sufficient evidence that there is a disease outbreak on your chicken farm, your best bet will be to get in touch with a veterinarian. This will be far much better than indiscriminately administering drugs or antibiotics; you might actually make the disease worse if you use the wrong medicines, not to mention that it’ll be a waste of money.
That being said, many diseases can be prevented if you’ll take the time to perform some simple routine preventive tasks such as:
- Cleaning the water troughs on a daily basis and periodically washing them with a sanitizing solution e.g. diluted chlorine bleach
- Maintaining the litter in good condition i.e. ensuring there are no wet spots or caking
- Ensuring that the birds houses are well ventilated thereby reducing ammonia buildup and allowing in fresh air
- Ensuring that proper ventilation isn’t achieved at the risk of exposing the chickens to low temperatures
- Immediately separating sick or dead birds from the rest of the flock
- Regularly examining the flock for sick birds and if they are exposed to poor litter conditions
Characteristic signs of unhealthy and healthy chickens
Some of the poultry diseases you are likely to encounter
Read more about these diseases’ signs, transmission, treatment and control in this Chicken Production Handbook.
- Newcastle Disease
This is a very common disease during the dry seasons. It often affects young chicks but adult chickens can also be affected. The disease is caused by a virus and therefore has no treatment. You can however prevent it by having all your chickens vaccinated starting at two weeks of age. Symptoms include abnormal egg shells and nervous signs i.e. paralysis. Your losses can be very high.
- Fowl pox
This disease is typically common in young chicks but it affects adults as well. It exhibits as pocks (small lumps) on the wattles, comb and face i.e. un-feathered portions of the body. An affected bird will experience high temperature and tiredness, followed by sudden death.
Fowl pox commonly occurs in dry seasons but it can also strike any time of the year. It’s also caused by a virus and therefore has no treatment. A highly effective vaccine is readily available though.
- Marek’s Disease
This disease is only seen in birds >16 weeks of age. An affected bird will initially show paralysis of one or both wings. In other cases, one or both legs will be paralyzed. The disease is caused by a virus and therefore no treatment is available. You can however find a commercial vaccine for it.
- Gumboro (Infectious Bursal Disease, IBD)
This disease is only seen in chickens <6 weeks old, and typically only in large flocks housed in confinement. The birds will normally exhibit diarrhea. Gumboro is also caused by a virus but a vaccine is available.
- Infectious Bronchitis (IB)
This disease is caused by the Corona virus. There are several different serotypes of the IB virus in existence. Only chickens are susceptible to the IB virus. The disease is characterized by a sudden onset, respiratory symptoms, and abnormal shells.
- Infectious Coryza
This chronic or acute respiratory disease is caused by the Hemophilus paragallinarum bacterium and chickens appear to be the only natural hosts for this bacterium.
This disease is caused by protozoa, unicellular parasites. It can occur at all ages but you can prevent it by cleaning troughs and poultry houses regularly. If any of your chickens survive they will remain thin and be late in laying. It’s recommended to avoid housing different age groups together as the disease can spread from adult chickens to the young chicks.
This is a respiratory disease that results in chickens experiencing extremely breathing. It’s caused by a virus.
- Epidemic tremor
This is another viral disease that results in nervous symptoms. It’s primarily seen in young chickens.
Parasites which are likely to affect your chickens
- Internal parasites — These are worms and can include round worms, hair worms, caecal worms and tapeworms. Affected birds should only be treated upon the recommendation of a veterinarian following a diagnosis that shows presence of worms.
- External parasites — These include mites, lice, ticks and fleas. You can control them with the use of pesticides; read the instructions carefully when using pesticides.
11. Reproduction in chickens
You can propagate your own small flock through natural incubation and brooding. To do this you will need at least one healthy rooster for every 10–25 hens.
The hen will need to be encouraged to get broody. To do this you can leave real or artificial eggs in their nests and also ensure that these nesting areas are dark and undisturbed. These eggs can also be turkey, quail, pheasant, guinea fowl, duck or geese eggs.
Some of the best breeds for this are the New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock, or Rhode Island Red varieties as they are reputed to be good setters and effective mothers.
You can number or date the eggs that you’ll leave in the nests. Upon identifying a persistent setter you may replace some or all of these eggs with fresher eggs that are more likely going to hatch. It will be of utmost importance to ensure that a broody hen won’t be disturbed once she is ‘set’ as she might abandon the eggs.
Unfortunately not all of the eggs will hatch — not even if you make the conditions as perfect. You’ll typically have 10–20% of the eggs being infertile and another 10% dying during incubation.
If you have a high number of eggs that have failed to hatch it could be that the eggs are infertile.
Candling eggs is a good way to tell whether or not eggs contain developing chicks.
To do this you’ll need to cut a 1-inch diameter hole in a cardboard box and then place a bright light behind this hole. You’ll then examine the eggs in a darkened room by holding the large end of an egg up to the lighted hole. After 5 days of incubation an embryo should be clearly visible.
Alternatively, you can purchase a high intensity egg candler.
12. Marketing the eggs
Egg care and storage
Eggs meant for table use should be collected frequently, cleaned and stored. The best conditions for this are at 55°F and 80–85% relative humidity.
Note that as eggs get older their quality declines but their nutritional value isn’t affected. It’s best to consume eggs within 2 weeks of being laid.
You can use a household refrigerator to store eggs from a small flock but because there will be low humidity the air cells will expand rapidly. Also, there’ll be the risk of your eggs absorbing off-flavors if the refrigerator contains pungent produce like onions.
Cleaning the eggs
- To dry clean the eggs you can use sandpaper, emery paper or steel wool
- If you have a small flock egg-washing isn’t recommended. If you opt to do it though you should use an egg wash containing a sanitizer, in water maintained at 115° Never use cold water
- Egg washing must not exceed 2–3 minutes and you should immediately dry and cool the eggs
For commercial egg production you can clean, size, grade (candling), and package the eggs yourself. Alternatively, you can sell them to an egg processor who will then perform these processes on the eggs.
You must adhere to the state regulations provided for egg size and the quality standards that must be observed during egg grading and the marking of containers.
Grading of eggs
Depending on local standards eggs can be classified as follows: Grade 1, Grade 2 and Undergrade.
According to the USDA, the egg grades are AA, A, and B.
Egg standards can be as follows:
Quality control for eggs
External quality parameters: Shell quality, cleanliness, egg size and weight
Internal quality parameters: Size and condition of the air cell, yolk condition, egg white condition, presence of blood spots and meat spots or other abnormalities in the white. Candling is used to ascertain these qualities.
The typical marketing channels for eggs are as below:
Apart from these markets you can also consider getting into contract farming.
However, directly marketing your eggs will be most desirable and profitable way to get your product into the market. Since you’ll be dealing with the consumer directly (i.e. no middleman) you’ll be able to retain all the profit and also get immediate feedback about your eggs quality.