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By Katie Thear

This is part one of two on evaluating laying hens. Part two >> Evaluating Laying Hens Individually

Evaluating good layers

Many claims are made for the productivity of hens when it comes to egg laying capacity, but these are meaningless unless backed up by adequate records. How does one distinguish a good layer from a poor one, and deal with egg problems when they arise?

Anyone considering buying point-of-lay pullets has the choice of hybrids or pure breeds.

Hybrids are the best layers, with a fund of statistical information being available about their performance.

Pure breeds are preferred by many small-scale poultry-keepers, however, because they rightly feel that they are supporting traditional breeds that might otherwise cease to exist.

Here, the emphasis should be on utility rather than show birds. For example, the Barred Plymouth Rock was one of the premier breeds for egg production in the past, and indeed was one of the breeds that my parents had on their Welsh smallholding. There are still beautiful examples of the breed to be seen at poultry shows, but they are nowhere near as productive as they used to be.

It has often been said that strain is better than breed, an indication that a family strain that has been selectively bred for production is better than mere reliance on a breed name. If the choice is to be a pure breed and a reasonable productivity level is required, then it makes sense to try and find a breeder who has bred the birds for this purpose and has kept adequate records. There are not many of them left

Hen-housed average

Commercial layers are described as having a certain ‘hen-housed average’. This is the total number of eggs produced by a flock, divided by the number of birds (including mortalities). This may be worked out for a different number of weeks. Some breeders may be quoting an HHA for 70 weeks, while others may be basing it on 74 or more weeks. Watch out for this!

The following table shows the hen-housed average production rates for eight flocks of free-range ISA Browns in Norfolk.

Hen-housed average of ISA Brown
free-range flocks
FlockNumber of EggsNumber of Weeks

Source: J. Vergeson’s unit, Norfolk. ISA Brown Newsletter, May 1996

Pure breeds are unlikely to reach anything like this level of production, although some of the recent commercial crosses and strains that have been developed specifically for free-range are very productive. They include Calder Ranger (Columbian Blacktail), Speckledy, ISA-Warren, Bovans Nera, Hebden Black and Black Rock.

Other performance data

Commercial hybrid breeders also make available other data such as the average egg weight and the amount of feed consumed to produce a given number of eggs. The following table indicates the type of information available.

Hisex Ranger performance data
Rearing periodLiveability97%
Body weight at 17 weeks1500g
Feed consumption per bird6.34kg

Laying Period
(to 72 weeks)

Egg production, hen-housed292
Age at 50% production150 days
Average egg weight63.2g
Egg mass18.5kg
Feed consumption120-130g/bird/day
Feed per egg144g
Feed conversion ratio2.24
Shell colourDark brown
End of lay body weight2100g

Source: Hisex Ranger Performance data sheet, May 1996.

At present, few breeders of pure breeds produce such detailed information. Until they do, they will have a hard time convincing commercial egg producers that pure breeds are indeed commercial birds. (I would be interested to hear from any pure breed breeder who has production records for good utility strains).

Copyright © Katie Thear 2005