Management of Backyard Laying Flock to Maintain Production, Health & Safety
Pandemic restrictions have sparked a renewed interest in backyard layers throughout West Virginia. Raising backyard poultry for egg production represents a pastime that can provide a sense of accomplishment and, of course, nutritious eggs for family consumption. However, if managed incorrectly, bird health and egg production will decline.
In addition, following biosecurity guidelines for confinement-reared
animals, such as backyard layers, maintains your flock’s safety, as well as the
safety of neighboring flocks and West Virginia’s commercial flocks. By following
best management practices and biosecurity guidelines for backyard laying flocks,
you can help protect the state’s number one agricultural commodity.
Egg Production Basics
For hens to produce eggs they must be reared to proper body size and age, photo-stimulated and provided adequate levels of calcium in their diet. Hens will begin laying at around 18 weeks of age. The body size needs to be large enough to allow for the easy passage of the egg; specific body size goals will vary based on breed.
Photo-stimulation is the process in which increases in continuous light exposure cause a hormone response that initiates egg production. The process can begin at 17 weeks of age with 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark with 30-minute increases of light per week. This should be done until 14 hours of continuous light are provided.
In order to support the nutrient requirements of frequent egg production and the development of the eggshell, laying mash diets with approximately 4% calcium must be provided. Dietary sources of calcium can include combinations of high calcium ingredients, such as limestone and oyster shell, as well as low calcium ingredients, such as corn and soybean meal.
Housing & Essentials
Hens will need feed access that supports production goals and water access without restraint. Housing should provide fresh air ventilation, dry bedding, nesting boxes and protection from predators, such as racoons, hawks, coyotes, weasels and neighborhood dogs.
While proper rearing densities are controversial, commercial laying hen aviaries recommend an indoor density of 18 hens per square meter. This recommendation is aimed to optimize welfare; however, studies have shown that greater stocking density similarly maintains welfare. It is important to provide enough space for hens to exhibit natural behaviors, such as wing flapping and dust bathing. Providing an outdoor paddock or free range allows for the greatest opportunity for hens to express natural behaviors, but there are trade-offs.
Outdoor ranging increases
the potential for hens to be exposed to pathogenic bacteria and protozoa. Diseases
caused by these organisms are now more challenging to treat, because many drugs
that were available from local feed stores now require a veterinarian prescription
due to the Veterinary Feed Directive instituted by the Food and Drug Administration
in 2017. Poultry feeds containing chlortetracycline, oxytetracycline, halofuginone,
lincomycin, neomycin, penicillin, hygromycin B, sulfadimethoxine + ormetoprim and
virginiamycin are no longer available over the counter and require veterinary oversight.
Feeds containing probiotics are available but do not have the same degree of effectiveness
as antibiotics and coccidiostats; therefore, biosecurity is more important for
backyard flocks than ever before.
Biosecurity entails sanitation, traffic control and isolation. Strive to maintain clean facilities, limit outside visitors to your rearing area and isolate your flock to prevent the spread of disease to other flocks and livestock. One easy management practice is to dedicate a pair of shoes or boots for use when working with your flock. These shoes or boots should not be worn at other times.
Following these few guidelines will optimize production, prevent health issues and decrease the potential spread of disease among your backyard poultry flock—allowing you to enjoy this rewarding pastime.
A mobile housing option that provides predator protection through solid-sided indoor space and a wired outdoor paddock. (Photo credit: J. Moritz)
Author: Joe Moritz, WVU Extension Poultry Specialist and Professor
Last Reviewed: January 2021