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Making profit from poultry – Part 3: Commercial egg production

The riddle of what came first, the chicken or the egg, is also applicable to poultry farming.

Farmers can decide whether they would rather specialise in egg production or broiler production. Either way, you will need eggs to have chickens. Here are some options that the poultry farmer can use to best suit his needs and available capital.

There are several choices of how you house your hens for egg production:

• in group battery cages (expensive but saves floor space)

• indoors on the floor (barn hens or deep litter)

• free-range outdoors during the day

• large groups or colony cages indoors

For replacement or point-of-lay pullets (young hens not yet in lay) there are two options. The farmer can either purchase hybrids or pure-bred chicks from a hatchery, or the farmer can hatch and raise his own chicks. The former is often more expensive than the latter.

Keeping your hens in a barn will give them enough space to move around while also keeping them safe and warm. There should be enough feed and water available for them.

Hatching chicks

The farmer can have a flock of breeder hens with one rooster for about eight hens. He will need nest boxes with litter placed in a secure, dry place. He will also need to store the fertile eggs in a cool place for no more than eight days. The farmer will have to allow a broody hen to incubate the eggs. Water and feed should be placed close to the broody hen in an isolated place and the nest should have a 2 cm layer of sand, then 2 to 3 cm of litter on top. After three weeks the eggs will hatch.

Alternatively, the farmer can also use an artificial incubator. Incubators can be expensive and need a reliable power supply even though there are kerosene or paraffin heated incubators available. Under normal circumstances, at least half of the chicks will be female. The farmer must decide what to do with the males. They will grow much slower than broiler chickens but can be given a cheaper feed than broilers after 3 – 4 weeks of age. It still may not be profitable to grow and sell them. The hens with chicks must be kept separate from the main flock of adult hens until the chicks are 4 to 5 weeks old.

Artificial incubation

A reliable power supply is essential for satisfactory egg incubation. A thermostat is needed to control the temperature at 39.5 ˚C and the relative humidity needs to be > 50%. Small-scale poultry breeders have successfully built small incubators to hatch 50 to 100 fertile eggs. A light bulb(s), controlled by a thermostat, provides heat although heating coils are also used. A tray of water on the floor of the brooder keeps the humidity above 50%. The eggs are turned 3 – 4 times a day. Ideally this should be done by marking the egg so that one complete turn is achieved each day, but the eggs should not be rotated end to end.

A homemade incubator

Paraffin or kerosene incubators used to be common many years ago. Heating is provided by a burning wick in a lamp similar to a conventional kerosene lamp for lighting purposes. The warm air is flowing constantly into and out of the incubator chamber. A damper controls the amount of warm air that enters or escapes from the chamber to outside. The damper is set manually once the temperature has stabilised at 39.5 ˚C at egg level so there is always need for an accurate thermometer.


They are usually raised indoors in the same way as broilers. They grow slowly and may need brooding until 4 to 6 weeks old. They are then given more space than broiler chickens. If there is an outdoor fenced area, they can go there during the day. They should be given 500 g of broiler starter feed for the first 4 to 6 weeks. When this feed is used up, it is replaced with a lower-quality pullet-rearing diet until 17 weeks of age. They are then given a layer diet which is high in calcium (3%) and phosphorous (0,5%). This is needed so that they can lay eggs with hard shells. Pullets will now be transferred to their layer house as they will shortly come into lay.

Battery cages

These cages can hold 1 to 5 hens per cage (50 cm x 40 cm x 45 cm high for each hen). Buying these cages can be expensive but they can be made from available material. Hens may peck one another and may need to have their beaks trimmed (a specialised job). They can also scratch one another if their claws are too long and this will result in them loosing feathers from their backs. Battery chickens must be given a high-quality layer diet. This will ensure that they lay more eggs and eat less feed than hens in any other housed system.

Free range chickens are often preferred by the consumer market. These chickens can have an outdoor enclosure where they can forage and move back indoors at night to protect them from the elements and predators.

Small-scale semi-commercial cage unit

This is designed for a household wanting to keep only a few hens and have eggs for their family. Features of these units include:

• a single cage unit of 3 compartments holding 12 layers

• cage on legs or on a stand or legs constructed cheaply from bamboo

• can be moved easily out of rain and bad weather to a safe place

• thatched roof or without a roof if kept under cover

• bamboo feeders and home-made drinkers

• hens must receive high-quality feed to lay 9 to 10 eggs /day

• system sustainable if 5 eggs sold and 4 to 5 eggs consumed by the household

• money from egg sales is used to buy more feed

• hens sold after 12 months for eating or force moulted

• money from egg and hen sales used to buy replacement birds or layer chicks and grown to pullets but starting these 20 weeks before selling old hens

Barn hens

These hens are kept indoors and on the floor with adequate floor space. The house must be well constructed and safe from thieves. Feeders, drinkers, perches and nest boxes must be provided. Floor litter is necessary and later used for fertiliser or compost on gardens. Green feed (grass, cassava, sweet potato tops) can be given to these hens in order to supplement their diet.

Free range

This system is similar to the barn system, except that the chickens are able to move around outside. You will need a docile (quiet) breed who will not fly over the surrounding fences. Hens are allowed to forage in a secure outdoor enclosure during the day. The chickens should be able to go indoors at any time. Make sure to limit the number of chickens to 7 to 8 hens per square metre to avoid overcrowding. The chickens must be locked up at night to avoid losses due to theft and predators.

The house should be similar to that of barn hens with nest boxes, drinkers and feeders. Drinkers are also provided in the outside enclosed area. Space per bird in the house is a little less than for barn hens.

The information used in this article is credited to the training manuals provided by the South African Poultry Association. For more information visit their website or phone them on +27(0)11-795-9920.

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