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By Katie Thear

This is part two of two on evaluating laying hens. Part one >> Evaluating Laying Hens by Flock or Breed

Assessing Individual Birds as Laying Hens

Having flock information from breeders is one thing, but what about the assessment of individual birds? If small poultry-keepers are to know which birds are good layers, or want to start a programme of selective breeding, they need to be able to look at their birds with a critical eye and select only the best for breeding. This involves recognition of appropriate body characteristics as well as numbers and quality of eggs produced.

 

Health

Only the best birds should be chosen for breeding. The male and female should be sound, healthy and vigorous. Ideally, they will have been blood-tested to ensure that they are free of inheritable diseases (a vet can arrange this), although for home flocks this may not be considered necessary.

They should be in tip-top condition and a breeder’s ration is recommended for them. This ensures that they are receiving the appropriate balance of nutrients, minerals and vitamins in the diet, for a deficiency can show up as deformities in the chicks.

General external characteristics

  • A healthy breeder, whether male or female, should have the following characteristics:
  • carriage upright and active
  • abdomen and breast bone well covered without excess fat
  • well-feathered and glossy with no external parasites
  • long, deep body with good development
  • broad, straight back
  • strong, straight legs with no swollen hocks or limps
  • comb and wattles that are plump, full and waxy
  • bright, alert eyes

Good example of the breed

If the birds are purebred, they need to be good examples of the breed, adhering to the recognised standards, as long as these are based on utilitarian principles, rather than on mere appearance. The breed societies, in association with the Poultry Club of Great Britain, have all drawn up standards for their particular breeds. In the USA, the appropriate body is the American Poultry Association. In the UK, we also have the Utility Poultry Society that is attempting to foster the development of good, utility strains of pure breeds.

A good laying record

At least one season of recording which hen lays which egg, and on what day, is needed to build up an accurate laying record. Obviously, individual layers need to be identified with leg rings, and trap nests used so that records can be kept. (Trap-nests are those that allow access but not exit so frequent checking is required on humanitarian grounds, so that the hen can be released when she has laid her egg).

Precocity

The average age at which pullets began to lay eggs was traditionally between 18-21 weeks. In recent years, this has gradually been reduced so that hybrids start laying much earlier. The amount and intensity of artificial light also has a bearing on precocity and if too much is given the pullets can start to lay before they have finished growing.

From the point of view of birds destined for free-range conditions, this is not a good idea. They need to be well grown before egg laying starts otherwise they will not be able to cope with the demands of outside conditions. A good pullet for free-range would therefore be one with a precocity of around 18 weeks.

Intensity

This refers to the number of eggs laid over a given period, such as a month, without skipping a day. The greater the degree of intensity, the better the hen. Again, scrupulous recording is required.

Persistency

This is the ability to lay over a long period of time in the first season of lay. The longer the period, the greater the persistence and the better the hen for selection purposes.

Lack of broodiness

Hens which are always going broody and sitting tight on the nest, wanting to hatch out a clutch of eggs, are not going to be laying as well. This is an undesirable characteristic for the egg producer, although it may be welcome by those who want a broody hen to incubate and brood some eggs.

Moulting

This is a natural process of losing old feathers and replacing them with new ones. All birds moult, but the time and duration are to some degree inherited. The pattern can be a useful indication as to whether a hen is a good layer or not. As a general rule, a hen that moults early is a poorer layer than one who moults later. It is not quite that simple however, for an early moulter that goes through the moult quickly, is better than one whose moult lasts a long time.

Another factor to bear in mind is that the first moult may take place in the following year after the pullets have been bought. Autumn and winter hatched birds will tend to moult between July and August, while those hatched after March will normally continue until October or November.

Head and comb

Hens with a flat, ‘crow-like’ head tend to be poor layers. That of good layers is fuller and more round. The comb of a good layer is also bigger, plumper and more waxy, while that of an inferior layer is smaller and more shrivelled.

Vent and abdomen

The abdomen of a hen enlarges when she starts laying and the vent becomes more moist and rounded. A bird that is a poor layer will tend to have a smaller, more shrivelled vent. The pelvic bones also gradually move further apart. This can be measured quite easily by picking up a hen and seeing how many fingers will fit in between the bones. At first, it will be two fingers wide, but as the laying period continues, it measures three or even four fingers wide. When viewed from above, a good layer will be considerably narrower at the front than the back.

The bottom of a good layer is fairly well endowed with fluffy feathers, while that of a poor layer is more skimpily clad. There is another factor here, however, and that is that some breeds have been developed to maximise ‘fluffy bottoms’ because it was thought to look better. This is a show characteristic rather than a utility one, so an excess of fluffy feathers will tend to indicate a poorer layer.

Pigmentation

Finally, the amount of pigmentation in the face and body indicates production. Yellow-skinned breeds, such as Rhode Island Red, also have yellow pigment in the legs and feet, ear lobe, beak, vent and eye ring (edges of the eyelid).

At the start of lay, the yellow colour will be well deposited in these areas. As laying proceeds, the pigment gradually bleaches out, but in a definite order. After the first few eggs, the edges of the vent will be paler, followed by the eye rings and ear lobes.

The bottom of the beak at the edge of the mouth is next, with bleaching gradually extending to the tip of the beak. Finally, the feet and shanks become bleached, starting from the feet and working upwards to the hock joint where the feathers join the clear area of leg. The whole process of pigment loss takes 4-6 months, with the longer period indicating a better layer.

When laying ceases, the yellow pigment is replaced in the same order as it was lost, but in a shorter time. The cycle is a good indication of past production.

Evaluating good layers is to some extent a matter of experience, but once one has got into the habit of looking at and handling chickens, it is surprising how quickly the process is understood. Mind you, there are some breeders who go in for some pretty fancy descriptions, such as ‘too phlegmatic’ or ‘overly-refined’.

I’m afraid they’ve lost me!

Copyright © Katie Thear 2005


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