The egg industry is currently going through its fair share of challenges. With production outstripping consumption and prices being squeezed, producers are looking for more ways to improve the efficiency of their businesses.
To try to achieve this, many are looking into how they can:
- Improve eggshell quality.
- Increase the number of eggs laid, with regular discussions around a target of 500 eggs per bird.
- Lengthen the laying cycle.
With these objectives in mind, the role of layer gut health in production has never been more pertinent.
Egg production, for the laying hen, is a taxing process, considering the energy they use and the stress they endure. It is a biologically complex procedure, and to achieve the highest-quality eggs, the bird’s performance needs to be optimal. By trying to push the boundaries of a bird’s laying capability, we run the risk of compromising the quality of the end result.
If gut health in layers is not at its best, you will see the effects in the eggs they produce. In fact, gastrointestinal challenges are known to be connected to:
- Fragile shells.
- Dirty eggs.
- Short and less abundant laying cycles.
These are issues that will not only hurt your birds but, in the long term, hurt your profits, too.
By making gut health a priority, we can ensure that layers have the resources they need to produce successfully. On top of this, when we talk about pushing the boundaries in terms of what our birds can do, optimal gut health is the key to safely achieving these goals.
When aiming to “improve eggshell quality,” it is essential to distinguish precisely what that means. Generally, a good-quality shell is one that does not crack easily and, as a result, will reduce the number of seconds. However, increasing shell thickness does not necessarily improve quality; it is the structure of the shell that is crucial.
Many enzymes and minerals are involved in the creation of the shell structure. Layers receive the required minerals through their diet, but these minerals must be readily bioavailable for them to be useful in the egg-creation process. The small intestine cannot absorb non-bioavailable minerals.
We also need to be wary of how much of a mineral is included in the diet formulation, as well as the interactions of that mineral once it is consumed. Calcium carbonate, for example, is crucial for eggshell formation, and it is often presumed that increasing the amount of calcium in the diet will automatically lead to more durable shells. However, there is a negligible balance to be considered. Calcium, when dissolved in the gastrointestinal system, can interact with other minerals, reducing their absorption. This, in turn, can have a direct impact on other structural components of the egg, diminishing quality.
With these factors in mind, the best method for ensuring optimum bioavailability is to use organic chelated minerals in the diet. They will have fewer reactions with other minerals, allowing the bird to absorb more of the mineral. By ensuring that layers are getting the most out of their feed, we give them the best chance to maintain a healthy gut and, as a result, produce high-quality eggs.
Laying healthier and longer
The laying hen can naturally continue to produce eggs for many years, but her peak production will naturally decline with age. Genetic advances in recent years have allowed birds to produce nearly one egg per day, from week 18 to week 75. In some cases, however, the push for large eggs — which come at end-of-lay — has extended this period to 80+ weeks.
Lengthening the egg-laying period puts more stress on the bird, as she must create a metabolically rich egg while also maintaining her body weight and dealing with any additional challenges from the environment that may impact the immune system. It is worth noting that if the energy requirements of the bird are not being met, at a certain point, her body will shut down the reproductive system that was producing the eggs in favor of supporting her body weight and providing energy for vital bodily systems.
Healthy gut, healthy lay
Between 50–80% of the immune system functions in some way through the gut. Many factors can trigger the immune system, such as:
- New diets.
- High levels of potentially pathogenic bacteria, known as dysbacteriosis.
The immune response in the gut generally takes the form of inflammation, which produces additional mucous layers. Added mucous creates an extra barrier for the minerals to pass through before being absorbed. This means that if an inflammatory response is underway, it is unlikely that the bird will receive its full mineral requirement, impacting eggshell structure and, therefore, strength and quality.
Maintaining and promoting gut health in flocks:
- Increases villi height.
- Reduces villi-crypt ratio.
- Improves tight junctions between cells.
Villi with improved height will have an enhanced surface area and, therefore, can absorb more nutrients to sustain the hen for longer lay cycles. Improving tight junctions will prevent bacteria from becoming translocated into the bloodstream, which can lead to a multitude of problems — including, in the worst cases, diseases like colisepticemia.
The addition of Actigen®, a unique bioactive product derived from the Saccharomyces cervisiae yeast strain, in layer feed can help to optimize gut health. Actigen works to normalize and promote diverse gut bacteria. This helps with the maintenance of the bird’s gastrointestinal integrity and stability, which, in turn, supports its immune defense and gut health.
Getting the balance right
In a natural setting, the microbiome — the microbial population in the gut — is developed from the mother as the chick is raised in the nest. Our modern systems mean that this does not happen, so the creation and maintenance of the microbiome should be considered when determining management practices. Keeping the microbiome balanced will go a long way to improving layer gut health and egg production.
Many producers have been successful in improving gut health and the microbiome via the implementation of Alltech’s Seed, Feed, Weed program to manage the composition of the intestinal microbial community. This involves accelerating the evolution of the microbial community to a steady state and then maintaining the status quo. The Seed, Feed, Weed program achieves this by:
- Seeding the gut with favorable organisms.
- Feeding these favorable organisms.
- Weeding out the unfavorable organisms.
By helping to maintain the microbiome balance, this program works to improve shell quality and enable a healthier, longer lay.
Producers in the egg industry are desperately seeking out ways to help their birds continue to lay more in the safest way possible. Quality food will help layers produce quality eggs — but this is only effective if the bird is able to absorb the beneficial nutrients that come from it in the first place. Improving the gut health of birds in lay will enable them to absorb a higher proportion of their feed. This will not only aid the overall wellbeing of the layer but will also give them the foundations to successfully and safely produce better eggs for a longer period of time.