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12 tips for preparing free-range hens for a housing order

Hens

FROM 29 November all poultry in the UK must be housed to reduce the risk of avian influenza infecting flocks.

For commercial free-range egg farmers, getting birds that are accustomed to using a range every day can prove a challenge.

See also: H5N1 avian influenza continues to spread in poultry across UK and Europe

Here, Wynnstay’s head of poultry Jim Turner offers 12 pointers to consider when implementing a housing order on free-range poultry.

Reduce pop-hole hours

If permitted by your egg contract, open pop holes an hour later each day on the run-up to the housing order to gradually break the hens’ routine.

It will be important to walk through the hens if they gather at pop holes, spreading them more evenly around the shed, and to continue this once the housing order comes into force.

Supplements for stress reduction

Stress can weaken immune systems, meaning disease challenges are more likely to impact hen health and flock performance.

A boost of amino acids, electrolytes and vitamins can support hens’ immune systems

Enrichment

Give birds plenty to do to keep them occupied. Peck stones, lucerne bales, clean sanitised straw and destructible authorised materials release aggression, reduce undesirable behaviour and keep the hens busy.

Ventilation check

With pop-holes staying closed, it will be vital to double-check that ventilation is working perfectly.

Now is the time to contact the manufacturer and double-check settings.

Temperature

It’s likely that the house will warm slightly without the cool air entering through pop-holes. Be ready to adjust the settings as the house warms to keep a constant ambient temperature suited to the flock.

Feed and water consumption

The potential warming of the shed can, in turn, affect feed and water consumption. Assess the diet to ensure nutrition is correct to maintain egg size/mass and production in warmer conditions.

Lighting levels

‘Hen lockdown’ means birds will likely undergo a prolonged period without natural light. The lighting systems in modern sheds are more than adequate for a high standard of life. However, farmers should make adjustments to ensure the levels are correct for the birds.

Lighting needs to be soft enough for the hens to remain calm while maintaining an even spread of light throughout the house.

Litter

Maintaining good litter is essential, and the ventilation systems should take care of excess moisture in the environment.

It will be beneficial to remove any capped litter before the housing order and replace it with clean, absorbent bedding.

This will allow the hens used to ranging and scratching in loose soil to continue expressing their natural scratching behaviour.

Grit

Scattering hen grit around on the floor is a good way of ensuring hens are getting enough grit and encouraging natural scratching behaviour.

The general rule of thumb is a 25kg bag of hen grit or mixed hen grit scattered around the house once a week for every 16,000 birds.

Worms

With hens being kept inside, there will be extra pressure from parasites. It will be beneficial to take a Fecal Egg Count now to assess the worm situation.

Worming hens now and again in about ten weeks will ease the pressure on the hens, improve overall health, maintain feed consumption, and improve egg quality.

Red mite

With the hens not ranging and locked inside, the warmer environment will encourage the growth and breeding of red mite.

It is essential to make a plan to tackle this. If sprays are used, ensure the correct dilution is applied at the right intervals for maximum effect.

If using water or feed treatment, contact the supplier and discuss inclusion rates to achieve maximum effect. Keeping red mite at bay will have a positive impact on every aspect of the flock.

Biosecurity

The housing order is coming to help to keep poultry safe from avian influenza. For it to be a success, then this must be coupled with very high levels of biosecurity.

Taking steps to ensure everything is clean, disinfected and stopping all non-essential visits to the farm will have an impact. Biosecurity also extends to ensuring pest control is adequate to prevent any other unwanted disease transmission such as salmonella.