Survivability and production of heritage breed egg layers on pasture in Delmarva

Final Report for FNE12-746

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2012: $13,784.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: Delaware
Project Leader:
Kim Hartline
Spring Morning Farm LLC.
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Project Information

Summary:

Spring Morning Farm is a four year old CSA. One of our best selling and most popular products is the eggs from our pastured heritage layers. We have used Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Red Sex Links and Ameraucana hens. The problem is the survivability of the birds in relation to predator losses. We have fixed the land predator problems with better fencing. Airborne predators remain a problem for pastured poultry operations. The problem has challenged the profitability of our egg laying operation. Although the losses have been unfortunate, we have discovered a unique trait among the heritage breeds. Some breeds are more wary and thrive in the pasture conditions, while others are quickly eliminated by predators. What we sought to try was to raise our most successful survivors i.e. the Ameraucana hens with a native heritage bird, the Delaware hen (not to be confused with the state bird).  

As a result of this study, the predator losses were the same between the two breeds. This appears to have been due to personality traits between the two breeds. The Ameraucanas flew much more readily and with greater ease over the electric fence designed to prevent ground predators. Therefore their losses were mainly due to ground predators. This year, interestingly, there were no losses due to aerial predators. This is likely due to a design change in the coop pop-holes through which the birds could enter the coop.

The Ameraucanas were also much less friendly than the Delawares. The Delawares were curious towards humans, making them much easier to catch for weighing. The Delawares lack of fear toward humans even extended to the frequent willingness to play with and untie shoes as well as jumping onto arms and shoulders to gain faster access to scratch grains. It can almost be said that the Delawares were aggressively friendly.

The Delaware breed produced eggs in higher quantities and sooner than the Ameraucanas.   The Delawares also achieved a higher body weight sooner than the Ameraucanas. Correspondingly, the Delawares ate more feed which should be taken into consideration when estimating costs. The cost per egg was lower for the Delawares.The price per egg based solely on just laying hen feed was 26.7¢/egg and 63.3¢/egg for Delaware and Ameraucana chickens, respectively. Given that the Delaware eggs were sold for $3.50/dozen and the eggs themselves cost $3.84, and the egg cartons cost 37.5¢ apiece, a profit could not be realized despite the improved egg production of the breed over the Ameraucana. Thus, at $3.50/dozen the CSA still did not realize sufficient profit to continue this portion of the operation. Therefore the egg portion of the operation was discontinued.

Introduction:

The Ameraucana hens lay blue – green colored eggs in lower numbers than the other breeds that we have tried. The blue – green eggs are more popular than brown eggs, create more conversation and go for a higher price. The Ameraucana is an active, alert bird that has survived well in a low input field environment. The Delaware’s are an active docile breed noted for their regional hardiness. They were specifically bred for use on the Delmarva Peninsula, introduced in the late 1940’s just before the Cornish Rock Cross came into prominence.

Project Objectives:

Our experiment was designed to compare the control bird (the Ameraucana) with the Delaware hens. We looked at weekly growth rates, daily feed consumption, and egg laying rates and sizes, and field survivability. We also calculated the cost of feed per egg for each breed.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Brigid McCrea

Research

Materials and methods:

The total number of birds was 100 with 50 of each breed.  The birds were split into 3 groups of approximately 33 birds each.  One group of all Delawares, one group of all Ameraucanas and the last group was a mix of the two breeds. To calculate the cost of feed per egg the study was set up with the two breeds in separate paddocks. This will tell us if predation should occur based on feather color, movement, alertness, or location. Obviously cost per egg was a driving factor in overall profitability so if the Delawares ate, for example, three times what the Ameraucanas do, then they may not be a viable option even if they have good field survival rates.

Each group had an identical coop, the same number of nest boxes (8) within that coop, similar run in shelters (for shade and airborne predator protection). There was a perimeter fence made of chicken wire buried 6 inches deep with multiple hot leads strung above the chicken wire. Grounding the chicken wire and using a solar fence charger to power the hot leads has proven effective against ground predators. The birds were fed chicken feed appropriate for their age, with oyster shell made available when they started laying. Feed and water was supplied ad libitum. The birds were purchased from a hatchery. A daily log of feed, egg size and count and any mortalities was kept. Field maintenance included mowing, plowing, disking and seeding with a mix of clover, orchard grass and alfalfa. Each flock ranged on up to 1/3 acre of field and were all of the same age.

The birds were weighed periodically. Before the birds were 6 months of age they were weighed weekly and then after 6 months of age they were weighed monthly. Weight data was collected in ounces and data was transformed into pounds for the purpose of reporting. A T-test was done to compare the body weights of the two breeds during each weigh period. Data was deemed significant at P≤0.05.  In addition to body weights, statistical analysis was performed on feed consumption and the number of eggs laid.

Research results and discussion:

Delawares (30 birds) and Ameraucanas (30 birds) consumed $75.03 and $75.09 worth of starter ration, respectively.

Delawares and Ameraucanas consumed $137.79 and $98.04 worth of grower ration, respectively.

Delawares and Ameraucanas consumed $1083.71 and $679.34 worth of layer ration, respectively.

The total amount spent on feed was approximately $2150.

 

The price per egg based solely on all of the feed that was consumed since they were chicks was 32¢/egg and 79¢/egg for Delaware and Ameraucana chickens, respectively.

The price per egg based solely on just laying hen feed was 26.7¢/egg and 63.3¢/egg for Delaware and Ameraucana chickens, respectively. Given that the Delaware eggs were sold for $3.50/dozen and the eggs themselves cost $3.84, and the egg cartons cost 37.5¢ apiece, a profit could not be realized despite the improved egg production of the breed over the Ameraucana.

When planning your operation do not forget to include cost of labor, housing, egg cartons, equipment, and egg wash.

 

The mortality for Ameraucanas for the entire study was 20% whereas it was 6% for the Delawares. Predators observed included foxes, possums, raccoons and dogs. Airborne predators ie. Hawks included Red Tail, Marsh, Cooper and Merlin. There was also one Bald Eagle seen. Predator losses were limited to the birds that flew over the fence of their own accord and were killed outside the pen. No birds were lost to any hawks possibly due to changes in coop door design. The exception to the above occurred about three (3) months after the study ended; when one night a single dog or coyote went over the fence and killed 22 of 24 three-month-old pullets.

 

There were significant differences between Ameraucanas and Delawares in the average number of eggs laid during all months of the trial (August 2012 through March 2013; 8 months of egg production). Delawares ate more, weighed more, and laid more eggs than the Ameraucana. Statistically significant differences between the body weights of the two breeds began in the third month of the trial with the Delawares weighing more than Ameraucanas.

 

Average Body Weight by breed:

After eight (8) weeks of growth the Delawares body weight was already significantly different from the Ameraucanas. At the end of the trial, the on farm workload was such that the weigh days were roughly 10 days apart. The average body weight of Delawares at the end of the 52 week trial was 5.80 lb. The average body weight of Ameraucanas at the end of the 52 week trial was 4.94 lb.

 

Weekly feed consumption:

From roughly eight (8) weeks of age the Delawares ate more than the Ameraucanas; therefore the Delawares weighed more and laid more eggs. There was an upward spike in feed consumption at the start of the laying season at the end of August. Also there was a downward spike at the end of October which represented Hurricane Sandy. A couple of downward spikes in feed consumption in January and February corresponded with snow and other significant cold events. Between 3/15/12 and 3/31/13 the Delawares ate a total of 4565 lb. of feed which translates to 2.29 tons of feed. Between 3/15/12 and 3/31/13 the Ameraucanas ate a total of 2968 lb. of feed which translates to 1.48 tons of feed. This will help farmers develop a feed budget and also estimate the cost of production. This information will help farmers decide whether or not to include egg layers on their farms just given the amount of feed they consume. Heritage breeds eat more and lay less efficiently than the more developed commercial layer breeds (Leghorn & Sex-linked brown egg layer).

 

Egg Number:

The Ameraucanas started laying two (2) weeks after the Delawares. Delawares laid eggs 15 days sooner than Ameraucanas. Delawares began laying during the 20th week of their life. Ameraucanas began laying during the 22nd week of their life. The Delawares consistently laid more eggs than the Amercaunas. Delawares laid a total of 5564 eggs. Ameraucanas laid a total of 2012 eggs.

 

The Delawares production spiked in late September and again toward the end of the study in March. The Ameraucanas had a similar trend although the egg numbers were lower. However, the total number of eggs laid per day by the Ameraucanas approached the total number of eggs laid per day by the Delawares at the end of the study. It would have been interesting to see if later in the spring or early summer of 2013 if the numbers would have been similar. The lower numbers in the winter months were caused by the short length of light during the day and a lack of supplemental lighting. The steep downward spike in egg numbers at the end of October 2012 was due to Hurricane Sandy.

 

Egg Sizes:

In year one (1) both breeds laid mostly eggs that were medium or large. This can have an effect on pricing, if the eggs are sized before the sale. Twenty percent of the Ameraucanas eggs were Pee Wee or small. However, 31% of the Delaware eggs were Pee Wee or Small. These sizes eventually shifted towards the large and extra large end of the sizing chart as the birds aged.  The majority of Delaware eggs were USDA size Small (n=1196), Medium (n=1338), and Large (n=780). These egg sizes represented 59.6% of the total number of eggs laid by Delawares.

The majority of Ameraucana eggs were USDA size Small (n=322), Medium (n=349), and Large (n=261). These egg sizes represented 46.3% of the total number of eggs laid by Ameraucanas.

 

 There were significant differences between Ameraucanas and Delawares in the average number of Pee Wee size eggs laid in the months of August and September. There were significant differences between Ameraucanas and Delawares in the average number of Small size eggs laid in the months of August through December and also February. There were significant differences between Ameraucanas and Delawares in the average number of Medium, Large, and Extra Large size eggs laid in all months of the trial with the exception of the beginning (August). In all cases the Delawares laid larger eggs and a greater number of eggs than the Ameraucanas. However, both breeds, as they grew older, increased their egg size.

 

Predation:

This year, interestingly, there were no losses due to aerial predators. This is likely due to a design change in the coop pop-holes through which the birds could enter the coop. In the past, the pop-holes were small, only allowing one bird to enter at a time. The new design allowed multiple birds to enter and leave through the pop-hole. This is likely the main reason why birds found it easier to run and hide from aerial predators. During observation periods, birds were found to be using the pop-holes in this manner when hawks were actively hunting. Early bird losses were due to climate control issues during brooding.

Research conclusions:

n/a

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

The outreach component of the study was fulfilled by speaking at two well-attended poultry workshops. The first was the Delaware Ag Week Small Flock Seminar which had 15 persons in attendance. The title of my talk was “Pasture Raised Heritage Chickens & Portable Coops: SARE Grant Results.” The second event was Delaware State University’s COOPTASTIC! 2013 which is a large event designed to deliver timely information to current and potential small flock holders. The event drew 227 attendees and my talk was titled: “Field-raised Heritage Chickens, Portable Chicken Coops, and SARE Grant Results.”
Both talks contained the most up to date performance information on the chickens with regard to mortality, egg numbers/sizes, and feed consumption. A popular press article containing the study details and results is being developed for publication.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

It was interesting to note that the Delaware breed gave the superior performance to such a large degree over the Ameraucanas. It can be said that the Delaware would be the better choice for a farmer wishing to sell eggs based on the egg numbers alone. Given the economics displayed above, it would appear that chickens are going to be reduced on our farm operation to a small flock solely for family use until such time as a decent profit margin can be generated from such an operation. The Delawares, while laying more, also ate more feed, and with feed prices being so high, the cost of feed cut into our profits. While working with the birds from the point of view of having them as a pet was rewarding and enjoyable, it was not profitable for the farm given our current marketing situation.             It was also discovered that this flock of Ameraucanas were much flightier and harder to catch for weighing. They were also much less friendly than the Delawares. The Delawares were curious and friendly making them much easier to catch for weighing. The Delawares lack of fear toward humans even extended to the frequent willingness to play with and untie shoes as well as jumping onto arms and shoulders to gain faster access to scratch grains. It can almost be said that the Delawares were aggressively friendly.

Future Recommendations

Further study on pasture-based broiler operations will be conducted in the next year or two to explore the economics of that facet of the farm business. Until then fruit and vegetables will be a primary focus of this farm business.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.