Layer nutrition: 12 perennial points of anxiety
Photo courtesy of Farmer Automatic.
If we were to mention the main nutritional issues faced by the egg industry, we could focus on twelve points that are the focus of nutritionists, genetic companies, feed mills, veterinarians and, of course, farmers.
Every nutritionist involved in layer nutrition has come across a number of problems that we can summarize in the following brief list. Not only do these problems keep showing up constantly, but for most of them we do not have a satisfactory solution.
1. Eggshell quality remains the major issue
This is a multi-factorial problem that has deep roots in early layer nutrition. The major issue is that as the hen ages and tends to produce a large egg, she cannot spare extra calcium, ending up producing an ever-thinning eggshell. To make matters worse, the efficiency by which she absorbs calcium from feed drops considerably. It is only by means of controlling egg size, preserving and even boosting calcium absorption capacity and monitoring actual calcium levels in the feed that this problem can be addressed.
2. Egg size is a double-edged problem
Fresh-egg markets prefer a large(r) egg, but this comes with a thinner eggshell, and it might drain the hen from body reserves of energy and protein if her nutrition is inadequate. Most producers prefer to limit the upper egg size to ensure a longer egg cycle, but others invest in less but heavier eggs. The main means towards both goals is protein and especially methionine nutrition.
3. Summer heat distress has not been resolved
During heat waves, hens will eat less and produce fewer and smaller eggs. This issue is best addressed by proper facilities and management, but nutrition can also play a role. Primary attention should be paid on feed electrolyte balance, but certain additives, especially through the water, can be administered to alleviate the problem. Feeding during cooler hours (night) is not an easy proposition as it interferes with the egg formation cycle.
4. The dilemma of a pre-layer diet
Most farms feed a pre-layer diet that is high in calcium to ensure early egg production does not deplete hens, but some don’t because this might predispose hens to early renal failure from calcium over-dosage. A high calcium pre-layer diet also contributes to high(er) water intake throughout the egg cycle, something important for layers housed on litter.
5. Pellets, mash or crumbles?
This is a much-asked question, and it really has no single answer apart from the recommendation to test what works best under the conditions of each farm. Mash is cheaper, but it can separate. Pellets are recommended for low-appetite strains, but they are more expensive. Crumbles seem to work best in most situations, but they are very expensive.
6. Sticky, wet, dirty litter
Water overconsumption combined with viscous cereals in the feed cause sticky droppings that refuse to lose their water through evaporation. This is not such an issue in cage-housed layers, but when they are housed on litter it becomes a major issue that affects hen health and welfare and gives issue to dirty eggs. Understanding why hens might consume more water than they need (feed electrolyte balance and protein are the major nutrition issues) and addressing feed viscosity seem to resolve this problem, unless it is a major disease problem.
7. Finding the right yolk color
Pale egg-yolk color is undesirable in the fresh-egg market, whereas an overly red one is also suspicious. Finding the right point is an exercise of balance between natural and synthetic pigments. Where synthetic pigments are not preferred, natural intense pigments can be sourced from less conventional ingredients.
8. Feather picking
This remains a problem in caged layers, mostly out of boredom and (or) lack of space, but it can also happen in cage-free hens if their diets are low in protein or specific amino acids. Checking the mineral and amino acid profile of a diet will quickly reveal if this is a nutrition problem or something that needs to be addressed through management. Some additives might offer limited relief from this problem.
9. Cage layer fatigue
High-producing strains confined in cages often suffer from this syndrome, especially if their bones are depleted of calcium due to nutritional imbalances. Affected hens become progressively paralyzed and die from hunger as they move to the back of the cage. A pre-layer diet with the correct level of calcium seems to be helpful especially if it is targeted along the appearance of sexual maturity.
10. Fatty liver syndrome
When hens overeat their daily allowance, or when there is not enough protein in relation to protein/amino acids in their feed, the excess energy is deposited as fat. Excess fat in the liver is easily oxidized, leading to hemorrhages and general liver dysfunction and to reduced productivity, health and longevity. Restricting feed intake is not easy because not all birds will over-consume feed. It is by balancing the energy-protein ratio and by adding nutrients and additives that will help “dissolve” the fatty liver that this problem can be addressed by nutritional means.
11. Calcium is the most discussed nutrient
When one wants to know about layer nutrition, calcium should be the starting point. Understanding the daily calcium cycle, from calcium in the feed to calcium in the eggshell, and the recycling of calcium in bones, is the cornerstone of calcium nutrition. In addition, deciding on the optimum source of calcium, its form and granular size and, finally, the time of supplemental calcium feeding, all are important aspects of this delicate subject. The role of phosphorus and vitamin D are two further aspects that are often overlooked, but these two nutrients interact with calcium absorption and utilization and must be monitored.
12. Genetics and book dietary specifications
Genetic suppliers always offer sound nutritional background information on how to best feed their layers. In most cases, these are a mix of scientific and empirical evidence, but by nature they are best estimates or averages. Some producers and nutritionists prefer to follow these guidelines to the letter, if only not to be blamed when something goes wrong. Others, with more experience, prefer to use these recommendations as guidelines and starting points based on which they can customize the nutrition program of each layer farm.
Layer nutrition is not limited to the above twelve points, but these do constitute a good reference list for the most common issues. Each point is worth further analysis and study, and nutritionists, researchers and producers are working hard to find better solutions.
Ioannis Mavromichalis, Ph.D., is Nutrition Editor for WATTAgNet and Editor-in-Chief of Pig International.
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