Pastured Egg Performance

Published on Wed, 02/03/2016 - 12:22pm

Delaware vs. Ameraucana
By Brigid McCrea, Ph.D., Extension Poultry Specialist and Associate Professor, Delaware State University

Once you’ve decided to raise chickens for eggs, you still need to set yourself apart from the competition. A great way to improve marketability—and profit margins—is by selling heritage breed eggs, raising the question: Which breed should you choose? Today, we look at Delaware and Ameraucana.

Today’s consumers care whether their eggs come from pastured, cage-free, organic, or free-range chickens and read packaging labels to make sure, giving you another important choice to make for your chickens and your farm. 

Heritage breeds, like the Delaware and Ameraucana, arent the most efficient egg producers, and raising chickens on pasture isn’t the most efficient method to produce eggs, either. These challenges make it even more important for egg producers to have all of the information they can to increase their chance for success.

Still, there are many benefits: Consumers will pay a premium for your eggs, and you have the opportunity to preserve these two heritage breeds by putting them to work on your farm.  

The grant
In the spring of 2012, I found myself in the unique position to be a part of a one year study of two heritage breeds as a part of a grant process. Mr. Kim Hartline is the owner and operator of Spring Morning Farm in Hartly, Del. Along with growing fruits and vegetables, Kim also raises laying hens.

Kim wanted to apply for a grant in order to explore the sustainability of adding poultry to existing farming operations, and brought me onboard as technical advisor. Kim was awarded a NESARE Farmer Grant, and over the following year, was able to collect invaluable information on raising both Delaware and Ameraucana chickens for egg production. Our goal was to gather information that would help other small enterprises if they chose to add poultry to their operation.

Kim recorded the amount of feed eaten by the birds each day, and weighed the birds periodically. He also gathered and weighed eggs daily once the birds were of egg laying age. Kim built the hoop houses his on pasture. In addition, Kim wanted to reduce predation losses by changing the design of his hoop houses, relying on clever ideas like solar powered electric fencing to keep predators—like fox—from entering the pens.

The results
Kim started out with 100 birds: 50 Delaware and 50 Ameraucana and the following results showed some surprising differences between these two remarkable breeds.

Feed costs and consumptionThe diets consisted of 50 pound bags of Purina and Country Acres brand bagged feed that was available at a local feed store.

Total spent on feed for the year:        $2150

                                       Delaware                   Ameraucana
Starter ration:                $75.03                               $75.09
Grower ration:              $137.79                              $98.04
Layer ration:                 $1083.71                            $679.34
Total weight:               4565 lb. (2.29 tons)              2968 lb. (1.48 tons)                                                                

The amount of feed consumed over the course of the study is important as rising prices continue to be a challenge for all livestock producers, not just poultry keepers. Feed costs tie-in to egg prices and should be calculated into any business plan.


Figure 1 shows the feed consumption of the two breeds over the course of the trial. Note the upward spike at the start of the laying season at the end of August, 2012. As the birds begin to lay, their feed consumption changes accordingly. Also note the downward spike at the end of October, 2012, representing the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and dips in January and February of 2013 that correspond with winter in Delaware. These lulls illustrate the challenges pasture-based systems can face due to weather.

Table 1: The number of eggs laid by each breed based upon the official USDA egg size.

Average Body Weight The body size of the hen corresponds with age and feed consumption. A bird that tries to lay before she is mature can experience difficulties in egg production, such as a prolapsed oviduct, a condition that can lead to pick outs or cannibalism. Therefore, it is important to provide an age-specific, high-quality feed to allow the birds to reach an appropriate body weight prior to laying eggs.

The body weights of the two breeds were not statistically different for the first several weeks of the study. At 12 weeks of age—or 3 months—the Delaware’s weight was greater than that of the Ameraucana. The Delaware remained a heavier bird than the Ameraucana throughout the trial, as illustrated in Figure 2.

Table 2: Eggs from each breed and size expressed as a percentage of the total number of eggs laid.

Figure 2 illustrates the average body weights of the two heritage breeds. As you can see, the Delaware [I](a)[I] weighed significantly more than the Ameraucana (b) by weight in grams.

During the trial, the workload at the farm dictated weigh-ins roughly 10 days apart. By the end of the trial, the average weight of the Delaware was 5.8 pounds, while the Ameraucana averaged 4.94 pounds.

It was also discovered that the Ameraucana were flightier, harder to catch, and less friendly overall than the Delaware. The Delaware were found to be curious and friendly, making them much easier to catch. Their lack of fear toward humans even extended to a playful propensity to untie shoelaces and jump onto bystander’s arms and shoulders to gain faster access to scratch grains, making them almost aggressive in their friendliness.

Figure 3: The daily egg production of the two heritage breeds.

Egg Production The Delaware laid eggs 15 days sooner than the Ameraucana, a result most likely tied to their larger body size and earlier sexual maturity.

                                                             Delaware          Ameraucana
First laying week (post-hatch):             20                                22
Total eggs laid:                                   5564                            2012

Figure 3 shows that the number of eggs laid fluctuated according to the season, tying-in with the number of hours of light available to the birds. Again, the Delaware laid sooner than the Ameraucana, but both breeds reduced their egg production during the shorter winter days. Egg production quickly increased with the arrival of spring, with the Ameraucana producing nearly as many eggs as the Delaware towards the end of the study. It would have been interesting to continue the study for another year  to determine if the Ameraucana would have caught up to the Delaware’s egg production.

Price per-egg To ensure that eggs are priced appropriately, flock owners can evaluate costs on a per-egg or per-dozen basis. When planning your farm business plan, don’t forget to include the labor costs, housing, egg cartons, equipment, egg wash, and any other “hidden” costs that may be related to your specific situation. In this study, Kim did not include the cost of housing or labor in his price per-egg estimations.

The price per egg based solely on just laying hen feed was 26.7¢ per egg for the Delaware, and 63.3¢ per egg for the Ameraucana. The price per egg, based solely on all of the feed that was consumed since they were chicks was 32¢ per egg for Delaware and 79¢ per egg for Ameraucana.

Since the Ameraucana laid fewer eggs overall, their price per egg was greater, despite the fact that they ate less feed. Spring Morning Farm sells its Delaware eggs for $3.50 per dozen. The costs of the eggs, based only on feed, was $3.84 per dozen. The cost of the egg cartons is 37.5¢ each. In order to break even, the eggs needed to be sold at $4.22 per dozen.

Unfortunately, due to the current marketing and outreach methods in place on the farm, a profit was not realized despite the improved egg production of the Delaware over the Ameraucana. There are many different ways in which changes to the management of the bird or marketing of the final product could take place to help realize a profit—speak with your county extension agent or poultry specialist to determine which changes can help you improve profits.

Mortality – The mortality for Ameraucana during the study was 20 percent versus 6 percent for the Delaware. Observed predators included fox, possum, raccoons, and dogs. Airborne predators included hawks such as Red Tail, Marsh, Cooper and Merlin along with one Bald Eagle sighting.

Predator losses were limited to the birds that flew over the fence of their own accord and were killed outside the pen by ground predators. No birds were lost to any hawks, possibly due to changes in coop door design. In the past, the entrance only permitted one bird through at a time, creating a bottleneck effect. Kim’s new, wider design allowed multiple birds to enter the hoop house at the same time, eliminating the problem.

We hope that this and future research on small flocks will assist you in making decisions.

For more information about NESARE or Farmer Grants visit: www.nesare.org

About the author
Dr. Brigid McCrea, PhD, serves as Assistant Professor and Poultry Specialist at Delaware State University. She currently specializes in small flocks, niche market poultry products, and both pre- and post-harvest food safety and runs The Center For Small Flock Research and Innovation.