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Extension > Agriculture > Poultry > Soils and landscapes of Minnesota

Evaluating egg production hens

Melvin L. Hamre, Extension Animal Scientist – Poultry

Egg producers may want to cull poor performing hens from their laying flocks. Poultry breeders consider egg production as well as other qualities when selecting breeding stock. Contestants in poultry judging contests judge classes of egg production hens and pullets by placing the birds in order of their laying performance as indicated by body characteristics. The ability to recognize and properly evaluate the egg production characteristics of the bird is essential for all these purposes.

Evaluation procedure

Before you handle any birds, look them over while they are in the cages. Stand back a few feet and observe their body conformation, head type, health, and vigor. You often can get a general idea of bird characteristics from this preliminary observation. Then, you are ready to handle the birds.

Handle the birds gently. Always remove a bird from the cage head first and replace it head first. To remove a bird, grasp its wing with your right hand over its back and gently move the bird toward the front of the cage. Place your left hand beneath the bird's body with two fingers between its legs, letting the bird rest on the palm of your hand. Now you can quietly lift the bird off its feet and out of the cage. You can easily examine and control a bird while holding it in this manner. Birds housed in floor pens may have to be confined by fencing in a small area so they can be more easily caught for examination.

Develop a definite system for examining a bird. For example, examine in order the head, abdomen, and vent to determine present laying condition. Then check pigmentation and molt for judging past production in birds of laying age.

In judging contests, birds will be judged by comparison for egg production qualities. The bird with the best production qualities will be placed first, the next best second, the next third, and the poorest fourth. After you have handled the birds, you should be able to make your placings. In some classes, it is easiest to pick the top and bottom bird and then, using the same judgment factors, to place the better of the middle pair second, and the other, third. In other classes, you might choose a top pair and bottom pair, then rank the birds in each pair to place the class.

Determining present laying conditions

It is relatively easy to determine whether or not a hen is in production. Check the condition of the comb, pubic bones, abdomen, and vent. If a hen is laying, her comb and wattles should be large, red, soft, and waxy; the pubic bones should be flexible and wide apart; the abdomen should be full, soft, and pliable; and the vent should be large, moist, and free of pigment. A good layer should have more than two fingers spread between the pubic bones and three or more fingers spread between the pubic bones and the tip of the keel.

When a hen is out of production, her comb and wattles may be small, pale, and shriveled; the pubic bones are rigid and close together; the abdomen is hard and tight; and the vent is small, dry, and pigmented. Do not confuse a fatty abdomen with one that is soft and pliable due to laying condition.

Estimiating past production by pigmentation

yellow-pigment-fades-from-hen

Figure 1. Numbers 1-5 list the order in which the yellow pigment fades from the hen.

You can estimate past production from the amount of yellow pigment left in the bird's body (in yellow-skinned breeds). A hen will have yellow pigment in the vent, eyering, earlobe, beak, shanks, and feet when she begins to lay. Less pigment is deposited in these body areas as she goes into her egg production cycle, so the yellow color gradually fades.

The yellow pigment is bleached from the body parts in a definite order. After a hen has laid just a few eggs, the pigment is bleached from the edges of the vent. The edges of the eyelids (called the eyering) will be bleached next, followed by the earlobes. The pigment of the beak fades first at the corners of the mouth, progressing toward the tip as production continues. Complete loss of pigment in the beak takes 4 to 6 weeks.

The feet and shanks take from 4 to 6 months to completely lose their pigmentation. Color is first lost from the bottoms of the feet, then from the front of the shanks, then from the rear of the shanks, and finally from the tops of the toes and the hock joint.

When a hen stops laying, the pigment returns to her body parts in the same order that it leaves, but at a much faster rate. Pigmentation is a good indicator of egg production for the first six months a bird has been laying. And, when a bird has stopped production long enough for pigment to return to some body parts, it is an indicator of how long the bird has been out of production.

Rate of lay and individual variations between birds can influence how rapidly pigmentation changes take place. The more pigment there is at the start, the longer it will take for all the pigment to fade. Pigmentation changes generally take place faster in small hens than in heavies. Low vitality birds may also have faded pigment due to abnormalities or disease and yet not be good producers. Even though variations do exist, pigmentation is still a good estimate of past production.

A hen that shows characteristics of being in production by an enlarged and moist vent, well developed and waxy comb and wattles, an active and alert appearance but little loss of pigment, and very little feather wear, has probably been in production for only a short time. On the other hand, a hen that appears to have been in production for a long period of time but has not lost much pigment (a hen with bleached vent and beak but with shanks still showing pigment long after other hens are completely bleached) is probably laying few eggs.

Estimating past production by molt and plumage condition

Figure 2.

  • A. Normal wing showing primary feathers (1 to 10), axial feather (x), and secondary feathers (right).
  • B. Wing of a slow molter at 6 weeks. Primary feather 1 is fully grown. Feather 2 is 4 weeks old, 3 is 2 weeks old, and 4 has just appeared. Other primaries have not been dropped.
  • C. Wing of a fast molter at 6 weeks. All primaries have been dropped. Feathers 1 to 3 are fully grown; 4 to 7 (which were dropped in a group) are 4 weeks old; 8 to 10 are 2 weeks old.
  • D. Wing of a fast molter at 8 weeks. Feathers 1 to 7 are fully grown; 8 to 10 are two-thirds grown. Hen completed molt at 10 weeks.

When a hen molts, she usually stops laying. A poor producer often will go through a slow molt, taking 16-18 weeks. A high producer will delay molt for a longer period and may take only eight weeks to complete the molt. Generally, a hen will start to drop her head, neck, and body feathers before she loses any wing feathers. A hen loses her primary wing feathers first, followed by the main tail and wing secondaries.

The best way to determine time and rate of molt is to spread open and examine the wing. The first feather molted is the primary next to the axial feather (the short feather at the middle of the wing separating the primaries and secondaries). Molt of primaries continues outward toward the wing tip. A good layer will drop three to five wing feathers at a time and molt much more rapidly than a poor producer that loses only one or two feathers at a time.

It takes about six weeks to grow a new feather. The wing of a rapid molter will have groups of growing feathers of the same length, while the slow molter will have feathers in many stages of maturity. New feathers usually will be clean, smooth, and more attractive than old feathers, which may be worn, soiled, or broken.

Determining production potential of pullets

Commercial layer strains in use today yield high numbers of productive pullets when reared under recommended breeder guidelines to be at target body weights at the desired time of reaching sexual maturity. The only selection in most instances is to remove deformed, unhealthy, and grossly underdeveloped birds when the move is made from the growing to the laying house. In the FFA judging contest there is a class of pullets evaluated on their production potential using the following guidelines.

The head should be moderately long and well filled in forward to the eyes to avoid a crow-headed appearance. The face should be clean-cut, smooth and free from wrinkles. The comb should be large and bright red in color. The eyes should be large, bright, and prominent.

The pullet should be fully feathered with plumage of good quality. Shanks should show a good healthy color, but place no emphasis on color intensity with birds of this age. Feet and toes should be completely normal and the bird should be well balanced on her legs.

The body should be deep, broad, and well developed, with a heart girth of ample circumference. The keel should be of good length and the back should be relatively long, broad, and flat.

Sexual maturity should be expressed by size and development of the comb and wattles. Early sexual maturity should not be encouraged at the expense of growthiness and ruggedness in skeletal development. Size of development should be preferable to sexual maturity. For example, a rather small, poorly developed pullet that showed advanced sexual maturity might be placed down second or third in a class of well developed pullets.

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