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You are what you eat

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Lisa Mancell

Lisa Mancell explores how nutrition can support positive poultry behaviour.

Nutrition has never been more important to ensure that our hens are healthy, and we get the most from their laying throughout the season. Spending time at home gives us the opportunity to observe the behaviour of our poultry and see how diet changes can have a marked effect on their wellbeing and egg production. Lisa Mancell from Farmgate explains the importance of nutrition for the health of our hens.

Hens really are what they eat and building your knowledge to give them a nutritious diet will ensure that your laying poultry gain the essential vitamins and minerals that they need. It can be difficult to assess the impact that diet can have on our hens, especially if we have always used the same feeds, but research shows that poultry lacking in adequate nutrition are prone to negative behaviour patterns. Finding a feed with the perfect balance of protein is essential to combat this; a lack of protein can be a reason for feather pecking, as feathers contain protein, and too much protein causes digestive upsets and grouchy behaviour. Mixed corn and greens are great complementary feeds and encourage natural behaviours, but on their own will not provide all the correct nutrients and can lead to eggs with pale yolks, soft shells or reduced egg production. 

We all invest the time and energy into our hens, giving them the best environment, but it can be difficult to understand the differences that altering their feed can have. You need to consider the size and life-stage of your chickens and alter their diet accordingly. For example, Bantams will have palatability issues with normal size pellets due to their small beaks and oesophagus. This makes it difficult for them to digest bigger or longer pellets that could cause them to choke. Bantams will also have smaller appetites so making sure that each mouthful gives them the right nutritional balance is even more important. If you are looking to change the feed of your smaller chicken, a fully balanced short cut pellet would be a great choice.

We are all conscious that our chicks need a different diet, but it is important to be aware of how crucial what you give them in the early stages can impact their future growth, development and laying capacity. For laying pullets, they should have a chick crumb until they are 6 weeks old, with a specially formulated diet comprising of all the essential vitamins and trace minerals.

A hatching chick needs to develop its vital systems – intestine, heart, lungs etc and the skeleton and muscles and then a covering of feathers. Without a healthy intestine, heart and lungs the bird could be compromised for life, so the starting period is key.

The rearing period is equally as important as the starting period, so from approximately 6/7 weeks of age a well-balanced poultry grower should be fed. Optimal levels of amino acids and minerals are required for strong, healthy growth, good skeletal structure and feather development. The chicken has evolved a unique skeletal structure which allows it to make short term withdrawals of calcium from specific bone storage depots for immediate eggshell formation, which are replenished shortly after laying, as part of the daily cycle. These bones develop most rapidly in the mid to late teen weeks of growth and are of vital importance to having a robust a resilient chicken for the years ahead. Investment in rearing nutrition rewards many times over in wellbeing and productivity.

With laying hens, a layer pellet or mash should be fed from up to four weeks before the onset of laying until depletion. Make sure the balance is right between protein and fibre – which is important to keep your hens full and provide good bacteria in the gut.

All our Farmgate layers diets contain the optimum levels of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D3 that are required for bone strength and good shell quality. In addition to this, other nutrients are balanced to ensure excellent, consistent egg production, egg size and yolk colour. Farmgate’s natural approach to a vibrant colour in our laying diets is from yolk enhancers formulated from natural ingredients using yellow colourant extracted from marigold flowers, onto which we add red pigment extracted from red pepper. As a result, egg yolks will be rich in colour throughout the year.