Where to source pullets is a key decision for any free range producer.
Charles MacLeod, General Manager of Humphrey Pullets, sister company to Humphrey Feeds, believes that attention to detail and having an in depth understanding of individual farm requirements are the vital components of rearing birds to a high standard.
The most important aspect is finding out what our customers really need from their flock, says Mr MacLeod. We have discussions covering their aspirations for laying, their market requirements and how they should be reared, then drill down to more detail such as lighting and vaccination programmes.
The livestock business is never a one size fits all solution – our team of on-farm specialists will see many flocks each week and therefore can share their expertise and knowledge, offering advice and bespoke solutions for producers as required.
It is all in the Detail
Attention to detail is essential throughout the life of the bird, and starts with the preparation of the rearing house prior to the chicks' arrival. In effect, rearing is a 20 week cycle, explains Mr MacLeod. Pullets are usually 16 weeks of age when they are transferred to the customers rearing site – it then takes four weeks to turn the rearing house around from litter removal, cleaning and disinfecting to setting the whole system back up ready for the new flock.
From air quality and temperature to plentiful food and water, everything has to be right. We ensure the rearing birds have easy access to food on corrugated cardboard strips running through the rearing house. Water is supplied via drinker lines with cups under each nipple, plus chick pans, that are regularly cleaned and topped up with pre-warmed water, says Mr Macleod.
Air quality is closely monitored - checking for levels of carbon dioxide in particular. The rearing house is pre heated and, as the chicks don't become fully thermo-independent until around 14 days, it is vital that the house and litter temperature is accurately controlled, ensuring the chicks internal temperature remains between 40 - 41°c.
Much time is spent observing the newly arrived chicks. This is where stockmanship really comes into play, continues Mr MacLeod. We spend as much time as possible with the flock encouraging the birds to eat and drink and ensuring they are comfortable with the presence of staff in the house. The behavior of the chicks will tell you if the rearing conditions are right.
Lighting is closely controlled throughout rear. Lights will be on for 22 hours on arrival to encourage the chicks to eat and drink. The light will then be reduced both in duration and intensity over the course of the following weeks to achieve the maturity profile required by the customer.
The quality and composition of feed is crucial, and an aspect with which Humphrey Pullets, benefiting from its close association with Humphrey Feeds, has a unique advantage.
Humphrey Feeds Director Martin Humphrey says, It is crucial that the birds receive the balanced feed they require; from the initial crumbs through to the pre-lay ration. We can adjust grists and nutrition as often as we need - but our aim is to develop intake to support growth thereby ensuring that the birds meet the targets determined by the breeders. Feed is crucial in helping to build a robust healthy bird with good natural immunity.
Monitoring - weekly reports
Pullets are monitored regularly and performance is compared to breeder targets at every stage. We hand weigh once a week and are implementing automatic weighing systems, one of which can deliver reliable data from over 1000 pullets in one day. The more we monitor the flocks the better - allowing an opportunity to make informed changes if required and ensure a rapid and robust response to any potential challenges, says Mr Macleod. More importantly, we want to communicate this information to the laying farm, and we therefore compile weekly charts that are sent to our customers to show their flocks' development - including weight, mortality and vaccination status. We always encourage producers to visit their pullets at least once in rear.
Vaccination strategies are discussed with customers, and if requested their vet, well before rearing begins and a specific programme developed to reflect the unique challenges the birds might go on to experience on the laying farm.
Move to lay
The move to the laying farm also requires preparation, with a focus on reducing bird stress. Ideally we want the flock to be in a like for like system. If they are going to use bell drinkers during lay, we will use them in the rearing shed too. Birds will become familiar with a particular system so in rear we mimic conditions in the laying house where possible.
Our aim is to load pullets at or above the breed target weight to accommodate for any loses during transportation. This helps ensure they come straight into lay on target, rather than the laying farm having to complete the rear.
Our preferred approach is to load them late in the afternoon and transport over night when its cooler, darker and the birds tend to be at rest. They are then unloaded early in the morning, allowing the rest of the day to help ensure the flock settle in and are eating and drinking.
Meeting the demands of the marketplace
Today’s hybrid hen is the product of extensive research and genetic improvement, her potential is vastly beyond that of her predecessors, says Mr MacLeod, feed conversion, shell quality, productivity and longevity have all taken great leaps forward to provide poultry farmers with the stock to produce eggs profitably for today’s market.
These advances do have a cost, the hen is now more reliant than ever on body weight reserves and a well-developed immune system to be able to cope with the challenges of today's production systems. Ensuring that nothing impedes the development of a healthy gastrointestinal tract is the foundation for achieving a well-developed pullet with robust immunity.
It is crucial to give a commercial flock the best possible start – ensuring productive hens that are happy, healthy and ready for the challenges ahead. A well reared hen helps give free range producers the best chance to run a profitable poultry business.