How to improve productivity of indigenous chickens

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Indigenous chickens are becoming popular with consumers. Good selection of parent stock, eggs and proper feeding and housing can help increase income for poultry farmers.

Indigenous chicken is one of the most abundant livestock species among smallholder farmers in Kenya, especially among rural populations who rely heavily on these chickens for food and income from sales. The birds are known to be resistant to a wide range of poultry diseases, able to adapt well to different management systems including free-range and extensive systems. Their eggs are nutritionally superior to those from both commercial layers and improved indigenous chickens. Further, demand is shifting towards traditional indigenous chickens due to consumer health awareness and sensitivity and the many benefits of organically produced food products. Citing these, there is also need to conserve genetic resources associated with the indigenous breeds of chicken; achievable through breeding.

Normally, hens start laying at 22-32 weeks of age depending on their breed, health and development.

Indigenous chickens often start much later compared to the commercial exotic breeds. At the time of laying they should have easy access to calcium-rich feed sources while providing clean egg laying nests. As a rule of thumb, one cock should be allowed for every 10 hens for a period of about 2 years. Selection is one of the tools of breeding that is very important in any breeding programme.

Selection

This applies to the selection of cocks for natural breeding and eggs for hatching through artificial incubation. It is important in determining cocks desired in breeding/parental stock. Cocks for breeding should be healthy, alert, protective in nature, shiny with normal feathering, have clean and dry beak and nostrils, clean feathers around the vent and have straight legs and toes with no signs of scaly legs and of large size relative to the hens.

Natural incubation and hatching

Eggs can also be set for hatching naturally for birds using different approaches; for instance through serial and synchronized hatching. The former is where hens are continuously made to sit on eggs by withdrawing chicks each time they are hatched, to replace them with new eggs.

Synchronized hatching is whereby if hens that started laying eggs in the same week reach broodiness, the first hen to brood is delayed by being given only one egg to sit on. This should be done repeatedly for the other hens such that they all sit on eggs on the same day, but destroying the dummy eggs by the time all other eggs are set.

Hens hatch perfectly under right conditions. One should provide good management conditions. Research has shown that indigenous hens raised under good management reach optimal egg production and the cocks attain sexual maturity with good weight.

Reducing reproduction cycle

Shortening the reproductive cycle of hens also enables them to lay eggs earlier and double the number of clutches annually. To shorten the reproductive cycle of hens, you simply need to cut all forms of stress. Improve on feeding, offer protection against predators and rodents, do timely vaccinations, control both internal and external parasites as well as getting rid of aggressive and unproductive birds. Indigenous chicken are good layers, if well protected and kept comfortable during brooding, she can easily hatch 15 eggs per sitting.

During brooding, fresh feed and clean water should be given to the hen. This way, she will only walk out of the eggs shortly to avoid keeping the eggs cold and possibly not hatch. As a consequence, high hatchability is realized with healthy and lively chicks of high survival ability. She can also be separated from the flock to reduce disturbance from other hens. A brooding cycle takes a minimum of 18 days after which the first eggs start hatching, averaging to 21 days to hatch. A higher hatchability rate of between 80-100% can be realized from indigenous chickens provided they are kept well; a percentage higher than artificial incubator where small number of eggs are to be hatched.

Artificial incubation and hatching

Success of hatching eggs using incubators depend on a number of egg factors as well as incubator conditions. To obtain best results using egg incubators, eggs selected should be fresh and not more than 10 days after they were laid. They should be of average size and normal shape, smooth and free from cracks. Cracks allow loss of moisture from the egg or bacteria into the egg resulting to embryonic death.

During incubation, always check the eggs and separate the fertile from non-fertile ones. Fertile eggs have blood vessels developed with a dark spot indicating a developing embryo. Dead embryos can be seen with a ring of blood around it. All these can be identified through egg candling, first done between 7-10 days. When setting eggs inside the incubator, the broad end which has the air sac should face upwards. Also note that the shell of an egg is porous and care should be taken not to block the pores, lest you suffocate the embryo/growing chick. Incubators in the market range from kerosene, solar to electric powered ones.

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