Most free-range and organic eggs are produced on small-scale farms. A major concern for farmers is the high cost and availability of suitable feed ingredients, as feed costs represent 60-70% of the production costs of eggs.
Laying hens are typically fed complete diets of pre-ground and pre-mixed feed. But complete feeds don’t account for varying dietary needs or environmental factors like ambient temperature or the availability of range forage.
Free choice feeding allows birds to choose their diet from a number of troughs with different feed components in each. Overall feed costs can be reduced because farmers can source feed ingredients separately, opening up the opportunity to purchase feed locally or produce their own.
With support from the Organic Sector Development Program, the Farm is investigating free-choice feeding systems with its pastured laying hens. Production rates, bird weights, and feed consumption of hens fed a whole grain, free-choice diet were compared with hens fed a traditional complete diet.
Free-choice feeding resulted in a minor increase in feed intake and an increase in egg production, but no change in feed conversion. Due to the reduction in feed costs, however, the Farm’s overall revenue increased by 8% in the free-choice system. These results represent potential meaningful savings to small and large flock holders.
For the 2013 season, the Farm built additional coops to improve data quality and included a comparison of the nutritional quality of eggs produced using free-choice feeding to the control diet, as well as eggs sold in supermarkets. Results from this season’s trails will be available in November.