Time to Feed Your Breeders
Table of Contents
What is the optimum time of day to feed growing and adult hens and roosters? As with most questions, the answer is "it depends" and this situation certainly applies to feeding breeders. For growing birds the variables are ability to observe feeding behavior, and potential effects of heat stress. With adult birds we have the added factors of eggshell quality and conflict of time associated with mating or nesting.
For growing birds, feed is eaten in a very short period of time (30 minutes - 2 hrs depending upon age and frequency of feeding) and so choice of feeding time has little real effect on other daily activities. In fact feeding and drinking are the major activities of the immature bird. Most producers will feed growing pullets and roosters early in the morning, especially in warm or hot climates. Digested feed is not utilized with 100% efficiency, and a by-product of such inefficiency is heat production in the birds body. In most situations this extra heat (sometimes called heat of metabolism, specific dynamic action, or heat increment), peaks about 4-6 hours after feed is eaten. Because of the restricted feeding program, feeding time is short and predictable, and so the heat of metabolism will consistently peak 4-6 hrs after feeding time. In hot climates peak environmental heat load occurs in the early afternoon, and so there is a distinct disadvantage to having extra heat generated in the birds body at this time. For this reason we have the common practice of feeding birds at 6-7 am. With such early morning feeding, the heat load of nutrient metabolism occurs before the early afternoon daily high temperature. Alternatively, growing birds could be fed in late afternoon or early evening. However this latter situation does not work well with short-daylengths for growing birds.
With mechanical feeders there is a tendency to feed birds even earlier, sometimes at daylight or when artificial lights are switched on. There are two disadvantages to very early morning feeding. Firstly feeding often occurs before staff are present to observe feeding activity and bird distribution. Under these conditions it is impossible to know if feed is being evenly distributed and if all birds have access to the feed. The second problem, which becomes more acute as birds get older, is the condition of choking, which occurs with a small percentage of older birds, especially on every-day feeding. This problem can often be resolved by switching on drinkers for at least on hour before feed is available. This is obviously impossible to accomplish if birds are mechanically fed at first daylight or when artificial lights are switched on - pullets seldom drink in the dark period. The ideal feeding time for growing pullets and roosters therefore is early morning, when staff can observe feeding behaviour, and after birds have had access to water for up to 1 hour.
Choice of feeding time of adult breeders can influence the production of settable eggs, eggshell quality, fertility and hatch of fertiles. In most instances these factors are a consequence of feeding activity displacing other important daily routines, such as nesting and mating. Breeder hens consume their feed in 2-6 hours each day. This large variation in feed clean-up time relates to diet energy level, feed texture and perhaps most importantly, environmental temperature. In hot climates breeders often take much longer to eat feed, and this is especially true of high-yield strains. Most managers consider this extended feeding time to be advantageous, because it ensures more even allocation of feed across the flock where even the most timid birds have time to eat.
If breeders are fed early in the morning, then most intense feeding activity will be over by 9 a.m. Again this is ideal in terms of reducing heat load in the early afternoon period. This timing is also ideal in terms of differentiating the main feeding time from nesting activity. Depending upon when lights are switched on in the morning, most eggs are laid in the 9 am - 12 noon period. Feeding at, say 8 am, would, therefore, induce birds to feed at a time when they are usually in the nests. In fact eggs dropped in the area of the feeder are a very good indication of late-morning feeding. Obviously some of these eggs will get broken or become too dirty for setting.
A few years ago there was interest in feeding breeders in the late afternoon. The main advantage is claimed to be an improvement in eggshell thickness, and in fact in many field trials this is found to be true. Improved shell thickness is likely a consequence of the bird eating calcium at a time when shell calcification is starting (for the next days egg) and also the bird having more feed (with calcium) in its crop when lights are switched off. If eggshell quality (thickness) is a problem, then afternoon feeding seems a viable option. Alternatively, birds could be given a "scratch" feed of large particle limestone or oystershell in the late afternoon.
However, late afternoon feeding has a number of potential disadvantages. Firstly there is increase in shell thickness. This should not be a problem as long as incubation setter conditions are adjusted so as to maintain normal moisture loss. In most situations this means reduction in setter humidity to account for less moisture loss through a thicker shell.
A greater concern with later afternoon feeding is potential loss of mating activity, and increase in incidence of body-checked eggs. Mating activity is usually greatest in late afternoon. If hens are more interested in feeding at this time, then there can be reduced mating activity and also more aggression between males. Body-checked eggs are characterized by a distinct band of thickened shell around the middle of the egg (sometimes called belted eggs). This defect is caused by the eggshell breaking during its early manufacture in the birds uterus. The bird repairs the crack, but does so imperfectly. Such eggs have reduced air and moisture transfer characteristics, and usually fail to hatch. The most common cause of body-checked eggs is sudden activity, movement, stress etc. on the bird. This extra activity takes place when feed is given in late afternoon, and so there will likely be fewer settable eggs produced.
Early morning feeding in breeders is usually recommended because all associated factors and consequences of this practice are positive for the bird and the production of settable eggs. The only concern is with mechanical feeders where there is a temptation to feed too early in the morning, and before staff are present to observe bird activity.
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