Small-scale farmer’s guide to layer production

The successful production of table eggs requires the implementation of some basic farming principles. These include selecting the correct genetics or breed of animal, following a recommended nutritional programme, good farm management practices, and providing and maintaining a suitable environment for the hens to be productive. All of these components go hand in hand, and each one is as important as the other. This article will provide a summary guide to simplify each of these categories for small-scale farmers on layer production.

Where to start and what does this entail?

1. Types of housing systems

There are many different housing systems for layers; the most popular types are battery cages and floor systems. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Battery cages allow for ease of management, lower incidence of diseases spreading and the absence of litter issues and cost of shavings, while some disadvantages are that cages restrict physical space for hens’ movement, which can lead to higher chances of developing metabolic diseases and higher foot-related injuries.  The opposite is found in floor systems with nest boxes. Layers on these floor-type systems have more space and it allows the bird to move around and is therefore regarded as more humane; however, hygiene is often a problem, as is the cost of litter. Some combination systems contain open cages on the floor with a slat design. Plastic or wooden slats are raised off the floor to allow for the accumulation of droppings.  This is often more hygienic and cooler for the birds; however, these systems are only suitable for adult birds. The house design should be carefully considered together with the environmental conditions.

2. Purchase point-of-lay (POL) hens from a reputable source

Most of the commercially available breeds in South Africa have been developed from the White Leghorn and New Hampshire crosses, with Amberlink, Hy-Line, and Lohmann being the most commonly available genetic strains.  Carefully select a breed based on production goals. The bird’s purchased need to be able to maintain a high level of production from point-of-lay until approximately 80 weeks of age. She must therefore have a well-developed frame to carry her through the next 60 weeks of production. Only purchase point-of-lay hens from a reputable source where the pullets have been raised correctly, following a good quality nutrition program, vaccination program and on-farm processing

3. Nutrition

Layer hens require fresh feed and water to be available at all times. The feed cost of any farm is approximately 70% of total running costs; it is therefore imperative that the hen is provided with exactly what she needs for both production and maintenance. Anything more is wasting money and anything less will impact hen production. Point-of-lay hens require a balanced ration to meet their egg production and maintenance needs. The maintenance needs of a 20-week-old layer are still high, because the hen is still growing. Feeding a scientifically formulated feed, such as the Meadow Feeds Powerlay range, will ensure all the essential nutrients are provided for optimum egg production, frame development, feathering, and plumage, as well as healthy birds that are capable of laying eggs until 80 weeks and older. Meadow Feeds only source the best quality raw materials and nutritionists formulate diets to provide the birds with high-quality grains, proteins, and digestible sources of energy.

Powerlay Early Lay: At the point when the layer birds arrive on the farm they need to be fed an early lay diet such as the Meadow Feeds Powerlay Early Lay (V16416), which has been designed to be fed as part of a phase-feeding programme for hens. It is formulated using grains and pulses and contains no animal by-products or fishmeal. It should be fed from point-of-lay until 35 weeks of age.

Powerlay Utility Lay: Meadow Feeds Powerlay Utility Lay (V16417) should be fed from 35 to 50 weeks of age. This feed is formulated to either be a two-phase or three-phase feeding programme or can even be a single-phase feed. This means that the Powerlay Utility Lay feed can be fed throughout laying (single-phase feeding) or it can be incorporated into a programme together with just the Powerlay Early Lay (two-phase feeding) or the Powerlay Early Lay and Powerlay Late Lay (three-phase feeding).

Powerlay Late Lay: The Meadow Feeds Powerlay Late Lay (V16418) is the last diet to complete the three-phase feeding programme, and is to be fed from 50 weeks of age to the end of the laying period. This diet is formulated to meet all the requirements of a fully grown layer bird, whilst maintaining hen health and allowing the hen to continue producing eggs for as long as possible.

The Powerlay Utility Lay can also be fed as a single feed from point-of-lay until 66 weeks of age. This is especially helpful for farmers that have smaller flock numbers and would prefer to feed one feed from start to end.

The digestive system of the bird is very sensitive, so it is important to always avoid sudden changes in feed. This causes disruptions in energy, protein, and/or mineral supply and will cause a decrease in egg production. The Meadow Feeds Powerlay range is formulated to be fed from one phase directly through to the next, without large disruptive changes in the supply of nutrients.

Table 1 Meadow Feeds Powerlay specifications.

  Powerlay Early LayPowerlay Utility LayPowerlay Late Lay
Protein (g/kg)Min.150,0130,0130,0
Fat (g/kg)Min.25,025,025,0
Fibre (g/kg)Max.70,070,070,0
Moisture (g/kg)Max.120,0120,0120,0
Calcium (g/kg)Min.35,027,035,0
Calcium (g/kg)Max.45,045,045,0
Phosphorus (g/kg)Min.5,05,05,0
Total lysine (g/kg)Min.6,05,05,0

Table 2 The recommended feeding programme can be adjusted according to the number of birds (take note that feed intake will be affected by environmental conditions, housing and breeding; use these recommendations as a guideline only).

 Feed fromFeed eaten per bird over the period (kg)Number of birdsFeed needed per cycle (kg)Number of bags needed
Powerlay Early LayPol‒35 weeks10,01001 00020
Powerlay Utility Lay35‒50 weeks10,5100105021
Powerlay Late Lay50‒66 weeks13,51001 35027

4. Water

It is important to remember that water will always be the most important nutrient on any farm. A 50 g egg contains 33 g of water; therefore, a water shortage will result in a dramatic decrease in egg production. Birds should always have free (ad libitum) access to fresh, good-quality water. As a rule and under normal weather conditions, layers should drink twice the amount of water than the weight of feed they consume, which is approximately 220 ml of water per day. Water quality can be tested at most laboratories within South Africa, for parameters such as total coliform count, Escherichia coli count, pH, total dissolved solids (TDS), and minerals (Ca, Na, Cl, K, and Mg). Birds drinking too much or too little water can be an early indication of disease, which is why monitoring water intake is very important and it must be done at the same time every day. Bird excreta can also be used as an indicator of water intake. Droppings that appear dry with little urine can indicate low water intake. It is important to bear in mind that as the outside temperature increases, the birds start to pant to get rid of excess heat and water availability and quality become even more vital.

5. Lighting

Layer birds are very sensitive to changes in day length. The supply of light is a powerful tool to manage a consistent level of production. Layers require 14‒16 hours of light a day to maintain egg production throughout the year, Ensure that there is even lighting throughout the house, with no dark areas, A warm light should be used to ensure birds get red spectrum light, which is required to stimulate egg production.

6. Air quality

A comfortable temperature for layers is between 18 °C and 25 °C , with a maximum relative humidity of 80%. Birds will start to pant at temperatures above 25 °C and this will negatively affect egg production. Ventilation is another important aspect of air quality. Good ventilation is required for birds to remove excess moisture and heat from the house, provide adequate oxygen levels to birds, remove carbon dioxide produced by birds, and remove dust and ammonia from the house.

7. Vaccinations

Birds received on the farm at the point-of-lay should already have received most of their vaccinations during the rearing period as pullets. Certain diseases are widespread or difficult to eradicate and will therefore require routine vaccinations. Most flocks are vaccinated against Marek’s disease, infectious bronchitis (IB), Newcastle’s disease (NDV), nfectious bursal disease (Gumboro), avian encephalomyelitis (AE), and fowl pox, Unfortunately, a single programme cannot be recommended for all areas,  It is, therefore, best to work with a local veterinarian to design and implement a vaccination programme.

8. Disease control

Layer birds, if vaccinated and kept disease free, can perform well and produce eggs for a long period. To remain disease-free, proper biosecurity protocols need to be put in place on farms. The easiest to control is the movement of people, equipment, and the birds themselves. Biosecurity is the best method of preventing disease. Some simple processes to implement on the farm include the:

  • controlled movement of people and equipment, limiting the contact of outside people onto the farm, as well as movement between houses on the farm;
  • limited contact with free-ranging birds and wild poultry;
  • people visiting the farm must have not been in contact with any other poultry for at least 24‒48 hours;
  • use of clean boots and overalls, which must be used when re-entering the farm;
  • use of footbaths with disinfectants at the entrance to the farm and all poultry houses; and
  • farm should be free of rodents (rodents carry a risk of disease).

At the end of a production cycle, keep two weeks open between previous and new flocks. Thoroughly clean and disinfect houses, including drinkers, feeders, nest boxes ,and all other equipment using a disinfectant. In the event of mortalities, quickly and properly dispose of dead chickens to halt the spread of disease. In this case, it is recommended to contact a veterinarian,

Coccidiosis is a parasitic infection of the intestines that causes irreversible gut damage and reduces feed conversion efficiency. Coccidiostats can be used in the feed to prevent coccidiosis, but they can also be administered via water or a live vaccine.

9. Molting

Molting is a natural process that birds go through when they lose their feathers. It normally occurs towards the end of the laying period and causes a decrease in egg production. Molting can also occur sooner in hot and humid weather,.This process allows the reproductive physiology of the bird to rest and build up a reserve of nutrients.

10. Data and record-keeping

To improve performance on the farm, record-keeping and data management are important tools to establish production goals and monitor animal performance. Remember to always look at the birds’ behaviour, their activity will demonstrate what they need.

Examples of records to keep include:

  • Feed intake
  • Water intake
  • Mortality
  • Vaccination
  • Bird weight
  • Egg production

The above serves as a basic guide to managing and successfully farming with layers to achieve profitability. Contact your nearest Meadow Feeds Technical Advisor for further technical support or visit

References are available on request.

Stephani Barker