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Feeding hens to keep them healthy and productive

Today’s laying hens, says poultry nutrition specialist Leanne Cooley, are in some ways just like high-performance athletes. They are very good at what they do: producing eggs.

And like high-performance athletes, they need a diet that allows them do their job efficiently, while keeping them in top health.

“There have been decades of scientific research into what makes for a healthy diet for hens,” says Cooley, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph. She says a balanced diet must take account of a wide variety of elements including, for example, not only protein levels in feed but also the composition of that protein, so that the hens are able to lay eggs while maintaining their health.

Canadian egg farmers follow feed regulations set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The feed used for hens in Canada is safe and nutritious, containing grains, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals.

Wheat, corn, barley, rye and oats in the feed provide energy, and are also sources of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Legumes, like soybeans and peas, and oilseeds, like canola and flax, are more concentrated sources of dietary protein and fat. Some feeds contain animal by-products like dried eggshell, meat and bone meal. These ingredients provide important minerals and other nutrients. Fats from vegetable or animal sources provide energy, while calcium and phosphorus from various sources help maintain strong bones and support daily eggshell formation.

In addition to being vital for maintaining the hens’ health, a balanced diet also plays an important role in the quality of eggs produced. For example, says Cooley, lutein and zeaxanthin are pigments found in foods like corn. These two nutrients are strong antioxidants and hens that eat feed containing those nutrients pass them on to the eggs they produce.

Because hens require high-quality balanced protein, feed used in Canada can contain a small amount of animal by-products. This means some feed rations may contain meat and bone meal, feather meal, blood meal, animal fat and dried eggshells.

These are safe and nutritious sources of energy, protein, calcium and phosphorous. They support egg production, are easily absorbed by the hens, and help the development and maintenance of the hen’s immune system, feathers, muscles and bones.

Not all hens are fed animal by-products. Canadian egg farmers respond to consumer demand by offering a choice of eggs at the store—from classic white and brown eggs to specialty eggs such as Omega-3, organic and free-range, as well as vegetarian-fed. Consequently, the hen’s diet is adjusted.

Hens are naturally omnivorous, says Cooley, and will on their own eat worms, insects, and in some cases small reptiles like frogs, as well as plants and grains. So she says special care must be taken if the hens are fed a diet that includes no animal-based protein.

“The hen needs to consume all types of amino acids, and it can be challenging and more expensive to provide them on a diet of only legumes, oilseeds and grains,” says Cooley.

“It’s all about achieving a balance of nutrient intake from a wide variety of ingredients. It’s more challenging to provide that optimal diet to a hen using only grains, legumes and oilseeds.”

Science continues to work towards improving the nutrition for laying hens.

For example, research has shown not only how to feed hens a better diet, but how to do so in a way that saves farmers money and helps the environment.

Cooley says it is now known that applying certain enzymes to feed ingredients helps the hens extract more nutrients, in particular energy amino acids and phosphorus, from that feed. Because the hens can extract more nutrition from their feed, farmers are able to use less. This results in a cost saving that is passed along to the consumer.

It also means there is less nitrogen and phosphorus in hen manure. This has environmental benefits, because excess nutrients can leach into groundwater.

“All our farmers want to be good environmental stewards,” says Cooley. “A lot of egg farmers also produce agricultural crops. Using these enzymes allows the farmers to apply higher levels of manure to their land without worry.”