Breeder nest management to improve quality egg production, By Paul Welten, Breeder Specialist, Cobb-Vantress, Europe

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Breeder farmers strive to produce clean and fertile hatching eggs. The quality of day old chicks is directly related to the hatching egg. Therefore, the breeder farmers have an indirect impact on the day old chick quality. Good breeder nest management will reduce the risk of floor eggs, dirty nest eggs and cracked eggs, all of which can impact hatchability and chick quality.

Nests

More and more companies are changing from manual nests to mechanical nests to reduce labor costs. However, both types can work very well.  The nest boxes must have solid bottoms and be well-maintained so it is the most attractive place in the house for the birds to lay eggs. The nest should be hen friendly, have clean and dry bedding  and provide environmental comfort for the hen. It is essential that there is no air movement in the nest because birds are very sensitive to drafts.

Manual nests

It is recommended to have a maximum of 4 birds to each manual individual nest, depending on the type of nest. The depth of the nest should be at least 15 cm, so females feel protected. Provide enough bedding to fill the nest at least ½ but no more than 2/3rd  full.

The maximum height to jump to get into the nest should be around 45 cm. Egg collection should be done frequently to prevent having more than 3 eggs per nest because this can induce pre-incubation and broken eggs.

Mechanical community nests

Position community nest systems in the center of the house so that the walking distance for the females do not exceed 6 to 6.5 meters to the nest (the ideal is a house of 12 to 14.5 meter wide for one row nest).  Nests can be made of different materials including plywood, plastic or steel. The nest material is important, so consider that steel is a good heat conductor whilst plastic and plywood less so. Therefore, in regions with temperature extremes, do not use nesting systems that are made of highly thermal conductive materials because they are less comfortable for hens.

The egg belt is often made from polypropylene (PP) or woven materials. Perforated egg belts are most commonly used as this prevents the eggs from rolling around on the belt.  In addition, eggs tend to be cleaner since the open structure allows dirt and feathers to fall to the floor.

Birds like to lay their eggs in the dark, so a curtain for the nest is very important. The accessibility to the nest is one of the most crucial parts. The birds like to have an instep height of 15 to 17 cm. To attract the birds to the nest it is recommended to have a slat area that is 40% of the floor area. The birds should be able to rest on the slats. The slat height should be a maximum of 45 cm with a slope of 7 degrees. Place one feeder line on the slat and a drinker line in front of the nest, about 60 to 70 cm from the nest. The drinker line and the feeder line should be at least 60 cm apart. Never place all the feeder lines over the slats because the birds will congregate on the slats and block the entrance to the nests.

Open the nests at least 15 minutes before the lights switch on and close them 30 minutes before the lights switch off. This will prevent birds sleeping and dirtying the nests.

Some companies raise flocks in the same house from placement to depletion. In these facilities the nests should be closed until the age of 19 to 20 weeks. Open the nest at the time that the first egg is laid.  The open nest becomes a new element for the females and makes them curious at onset of production.

Hygiene and health status

While inside the hen, the egg has a temperature of about 41°C (106°F). After laying, the egg cuticle dries quickly to protect the pores of the shell. In a mechanical nest with nest pads the egg temperature can drop 10°C (50°F) in 15 minutes. While cooling, the eggs are very susceptible to contamination as microorganisms can be drawn into the egg through the egg pores. Therefore, any fecal material in the nest can contaminate freshly laid eggs.  Replace any nesting material that is soiled. Sanitize nest pads at least once in the middle of the production cycle, or more often based on the level of soiling. The most common nest pads are made from artificial turf or rubber. The pads have fingers that minimize the egg contact with dirt. Worn pads must be replaced so that eggs roll away on to the egg belt.  Failure to replace worn pads will result in extra labor needed to collect eggs.

As the flock ages and the eggshell gets thinner, it is important to keep the nest boxes clean to prevent contaminated eggs.  At this point, the nest material should be disinfected more frequently or replaced when worn.  Keep mechanical nests free from sick birds and mortalities.  These birds can be a significant source of nest contamination. Keep nests free from parasites including red mites which can make the hens restless, uncomfortable and reluctant to use the nests.

Egg collection

Manual nests: At around 20% production, egg collection should be done twice per day. Increase the collection frequency as the weekly production increases. In full production, collect eggs at least four times a day and during peak production, six times a day.

Mechanical community nests:  With a mechanical nest system, start the first egg collection when about 10 to 15 eggs are laid on the belt. Do the first collection in the afternoon so there are not many birds in the nests and keep the belt speed slow so the birds don’t get scared. Be sure the small internal plastic flaps that keep the egg belt hidden are in good condition.  Over time the plastic flaps start curling and hens will be able to see the moving egg belt which can increase floor or slat eggs. Also check that the nest pads are well connected to the center of the egg belt and the angle is correct (around 8 degrees) to allow eggs to roll onto the belt. The nest pad should go under the internal plastic flap so the birds don’t see the egg rolling onto the egg belt. The eggs can be collected manually from the belt or by packers. If packers are used, it is very important that the eggs are protected during their journey to minimize cracks. Provide smooth transitions and check connections, slopes and corners from the egg belt to the conveyer.

An electronic egg should be used to check for trouble spots in the process.  The electronic egg has sensors that measures the impact (vibrations, shocks and rotation) on the egg as it travels.

Feeding period

The feeding period should not coincide with the most active laying period because it will encourage the females to leave the nest and lay eggs on the floor. The feeding time should take place before the majority of the females have laid their eggs, around 30 minutes before or 6 hours after the lights have switched on.

Important rules for good nest management

  • Enough nest space is crucial. Birds don’t want to wait. For a mechanical community nest allow a minimum of 100 cm2 nest space for 1 hen ( 1 m2 or 100 hens).  Another option is to calculate 100 females /m of house length of nest systems.
  • The type of community nest is very important to attract the females to the nests. Do research to determine which nests have a history of low floor and slat eggs.
  • Open the nest when the first egg is laid. Don’t open the nest too early because hens will lose interest, use nests as a resting place, and cause heavy soiling in the nest.
  • The nest pads must be installed correctly and be in good condition so that the eggs roll smoothly onto the belt.
  • Ensure all transitions between belts have minimal gaps to prevent egg damage. An electronic egg can help to evaluate conveyor and belt conditions.
  • The curtain that separates the nest box and the egg belt should not be broken or curled. This can lead to broken eggs and an uncomfortable environment for the hens.
  • Close the front end of the belt entrance to the egg collection table when the eggs are not being collected to prevent a draft from the egg collection room to the nest belt.
  • Females will tend to avoid nests if foul odors are coming from the egg belt. Therefore, clean the egg belt on a regular basis.
  • Nipple lines should have a water flow rate of 80 to 100 ml/min and must not block the nest entrance area.
  • Walk slowly through the house so the birds don’t get scared.
  • Provide a uniform light distribution in the house. Shadows or dark places in production houses can lead to floor eggs. Concentrate the light intensity on the litter area with a minimum of 60 lux. Prevent high light intensity at the entrance of the nest.
  • Use no more than 2 to 3 cm of litter in the scratch area. When the floor is warm and birds feel comfortable, they will prefer to lay their eggs on the floor instead of the nest.

Birds like to lay their eggs in the dark, so a curtain for the nest is very important.

Nest pads that are worn (as shown in photo) should be replaced because eggs will not roll onto the conveyor and will collect in the nest.

Broken internal curtains and nest pads which are worn prevent eggs from rolling to the conveyor belt.

Paul Welton Bio: Paul Welton is a breeder specialist that has been with Cobb for 27 years. He currently serves the EMEA region. Paul holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Husbandry from HAS University of Applied Sciences at ‘s-Hertogenbosch.