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Feeding the Pullet

Feeding and management of pullets during the growing period have major effects on egg production and egg weights during the laying period. Mistakes made during the growing period can lead to poor production in lay and cannot easily be corrected during the laying period. Therefore, flexibility in pullet diet formulation and in the timing of diet changes is necessary to ensure that body weight and uniformity targets are met. Feeding the starter diet as crumbles can improve body weight gain and uniformity by increasing the chicks' feed consumption and avoiding selective feeding.

Diet or phase changes
Diet changes are governed by target body weights, not bird age. Close monitoring of the pullets' body weight is therefore a key prerequisite for diet changes. If chicks are below the recommended target weight at 3 weeks of age (when a change from the starter diet to the grower diet is normally recommended), the starter diet should be fed longer until the target weight-for-age is met. If there is a large discrepancy between the pullets' body weight and the target weight, diets can be reformulated with higher energy concentrations. Other options to consider include any factors that affect feed intake and, therefore, consumption of energy and nutrients. These factors include:

  • Speed of feeders and the duration of the feeding—the feeders should run long enough to ensure that feed is distributed throughout the barn, adding 2 to 3 cm (1 in) of feed in the feed trough.
  • The numbers of feedings per day—the feeders should run when the lights are turned on in the morning and before lights are turned off in the evening. Additional feeding periods should be distributed throughout the day, potentially with a pause in the middle of the day so the birds can empty (or almost empty) the feed troughs. A midnight feeding can also be used to increase feed consumption.
  • Drinking-water flow rate—if birds do not drink water, they do not consume feed.
  • Insufficient feeder or water space (crowding)—too little access to feed and/or water decreases feed consumption and, therefore, growth rate.
  • Feed refusal—could be caused by presence of molds or mycotoxins. Parts of the feed may not be consumed if ground too fine (i.e., poor particle-size distribution) or if the crumble-quality is not good.
  • Abrupt feed-formulation changes—too large changes in feed-ingredient composition or nutrient content may (temporarily) decrease feed consumption.
  • Lack of perches or insufficient perch space—perches improve the social environment and allow less-aggressive birds in the flock to consume more feed and water.

Influencing the rate of body weight gain through nutrition
Young pullets do not regulate feed consumption based on energy intake as well as mature laying hens do, and they will therefore usually respond to higher-energy diets with an increase in body weight gain. Increasing the dietary energy content to promote growth in warm weather (when feed consumption is depressed) may not be as effective as in cool weather; therefore, the concentrations of amino acids, minerals, and vitamins should also be increased proportionally, following the principles of formulating for feed intake.

Although high-density diets can be used to improve body weight gain, the sustained feeding of diets with higher-than-recommended energy contents or with a low fiber content can result in inadequate development of the birds' capacity for feed consumption, leading to low feed intakes and egg production during lay. As long as body weight targets can be met, the energy content of the pre-lay diet should be lower than that of the preceding (developer) and subsequent (peaking) diet to encourage increased feed consumption and build capacity for feed consumption during lay. A midnight feeding can be used to increase feed intake and body weight gain, which is especially beneficial in hot weather.

Pre-lay diets
The recommended calcium content in the pullet diet is around 1%, which ensures sufficient calcium consumption to develop a good bone structure. The pre-lay diet, fed at the beginning of sexual maturity (i.e., approximately 2 weeks prior to the first egg and never earlier than 15 weeks of age), should contain higher levels of calcium (2.5% calcium) and available phosphorus than the grower diets in an effort to help develop medullary bone.

Medullary bone acts as a calcium reservoir, from which the mature hen can quickly mobilize calcium for eggshell formation. Proper development of medullary bone has implications for osteoporosis and eggshell quality in late lay. Nevertheless, the extra management of a pre-lay diet, which is fed for only a short time, may preclude its use. In these cases, it is not recommended to feed a layer-type diet with high (4 to 5%) calcium prior to sexual maturity (i.e., instead of a pre-layer diet), because it can lead to wet manure, which persists well into the lay period.

On the other hand, the grower and pre-lay diets should not be fed beyond the first egg, as they contain inadequate amounts of calcium for sustained egg production. If it is not practical to feed a pre-lay diet with 2.5% calcium for 2 weeks prior to lay, the last diet before point-of-lay should contain 1.4% calcium. Although this level of calcium is not as good as 2.5% calcium to help develop medullary bone, it is better than 1% calcium; the 1.4% calcium is not high enough to cause problems with kidney damage or wet manure in lay. 

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