Eggs are produced commercially in all states and territories in Australia except the Northern Territory where production declined due to the cost of sourcing feed in this part of the country.
The key factors for selecting a suitable location for commercial egg production are proximity to markets, ability to attain a permit from the local council, access to electricity and good quality water (treated water supplied by the local council), the cost of feed and the cost of transporting to markets.
Adult laying hens perform best at a temperature range of 21-28°C with a relative humidity of 60-80%. To maintain these conditions, the birds are generally kept in housing (or with access to housing) where the sheds can be cooled when necessary. Other important environmental factors that are managed include air composition (oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide) and air movement (speed).
There are three main types of housing systems used in Australia to house hens for commercial egg production: cage, barn and free-range. All of these systems are considered non-intensive farming due to the amount of space allocated per animal. Poultry houses are designed and built to enable the regulation of the environment to a significant degree. The birds need to be protected from environmental extremes (wind, heat, cold etc.) while being housed in optimal conditions – 21-28°C; 60-80% humidity; and adequate ventilation. In Australia, only cooling of the houses is required.
For barn and free-range systems, the floor of the housing is spread with litter approximately 5cm deep which can be made up of a range of materials, depending what is locally available. The most common materials for poultry litter are sawdust, wood shavings, rice hulls, straw and paper products. For the health and welfare of the birds, litter must be changed regularly to remove the build-up of manure and feathers and other waste. Chicken litter can be re-used as a fertiliser and soil conditioner and this is the most popular method of disposal.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each system and the marketing of eggs is based on which system is used for production.
Cage systems use rows of steel cages located within a hen house. Cage size ranges from 1,800-11,000cm2, accommodate four to twenty hens and can be single tier or stacked up to 8 cages high. For hens in cage systems, the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (Domestic Poultry 4th edition) requires a minimum of 550cm2space allowance per hen.
The advantages of cage systems are that there is higher density and therefore higher production, lower levels of health issues and rates of mortality, increased protection from fighting and cannibalism, protection from predators and easier monitoring and identification of sick birds. The disadvantages of this system are reduced social interaction for the hens, less space to roam and the inability to display natural behaviours. Cage systems also provide easier conditions for the people caring for the birds, thus reducing Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) issues.
Barn systems house the hens in large houses with litter floors. The advantages of barn systems are protection from predators, ability for the birds to move around freely, socialise and display natural behaviours. The disadvantages are an increased likelihood of fighting and cannibalism, greater occurrence of manure-borne disease and parasites and additional OHS issues for the people looking after the birds.
In free-range systems, hens are kept in housing but also have access to an outdoor area for at least eight hours per day. The housing provides areas for roosting, laying, drinking and eating. The stocking density rating for free-range laying hens is a maximum of 1,500 birds per hectare. The advantages and disadvantages are similar to those of barn systems but free-range systems are considered as having the greatest biosecurity challenges of the three systems as it is more difficult to prevent exposure to wild birds who can carry disease.
Eggs can also be produced using organic production which requires free-range housing systems where the hens are fed a diet that is at least 95% organically grown. A producer must be certified organic to market and sell under an organic label.
For more detailed information on housing for poultry, refer to PoultryHub’s Housing and Environment website page.
Chicken layer feed is made up primarily of cereal grain, vegetable proteins and may include some animal protein meals. Other nutrients, such as calcium and phosphorous are added as required. The nutritional requirements of laying hens will vary depending on their stage of growth and the breed.
Chicks (up to six weeks old) are given a feed that supplies high levels of energy and protein to support rapid growth and feather development. As a guide, chicks start at a feed consumption rate of about 13g per bird per day. From 16 weeks old hens enter the laying period and the feed intake increases to a steady level of around 100-105g per bird per day.
In formulating feed, the aim is to optimise egg production and to maintain health and bodyweight. The feeding strategy will depend on the breed of bird and a number of different strategies may be used throughout the life of the hen. A layer hen diet typically consists of energy, protein, lysine, methionine, linoleic acid, calcium and phosphorous with the relative percentage of each of these varying with the growth stage of the bird.
Feed can be purchased from agricultural feed suppliers as a pre-mix or feed can be mixed on-farm. Formulating and mixing feed on-farm requires knowledge of feed nutritional requirements and may require additional equipment.
For more information on chicken layer nutritional requirements, refer to Poultry Hub’s Nutrient requirements of egg laying chickens.
Breeds and breeding
Commercial laying birds in Australia are actually ‘brands’ rather than breeds. Poultry genetics are imported into the country as fertile eggs and the chicks from these eggs are the great-grandparents of chickens that are ultimately used for egg production. The main layer brands used in Australia are Hisex (developed in Holland), Hy-Line (developed in USA), and ISA (developed in France) and chicks are source directly from these companies.