Common mistakes every poultry farmer must avoid

Three-day-old broilers at Nyamvula Lenga’s poultry room in her quarter an acre plot at Lilongwe, overlooking the Port Reitz Creek in Mombasa County. [Photo: File, Standard]

Victoria Mwelu is a poultry farmer in Tulimani, Makueni County. The chicken house is dark inside and crammed for the more than 30 chickens she rears.

“I have to try and conserve space,” she says.

Victoria went into poultry farming to make money from selling eggs as well as chicken meat. The small space, to her, is enough for the brood – which increases every few weeks and she has to sell off adult chickens to create space for the hatchlings.

“I have never looked at it as confined space. I have always thought it was big enough for my chicken,” she says.

If it is not for a few wire-meshed sections, Victoria’s chicken house has little difference with a traditional human mud house.

The floor is littered with uneaten chicken marsh and chicken droppings. A strong pungent smell is unmistakable inside. Do the chickens produce to Victoria’s satisfaction, we ask.

“I believe so,” she says. “I don’t know if they can produce more if I changed their environment.”

A few times, Victoria says, tragedy has struck in form of disease and she would lose nearly all of her livestock.

“When a disease strikes, the chickens fall like dead birds from a tree,” she says.

Victoria has never sat in a farming class. So, she can’t fully comprehend what happens with her chickens.

Poultry farmers like Victoria rarely realise optimal profits from their ventures because their chicken rearing methods depress production.

According to Dr Victor Yamo, a veterinarian and poultry specialist at World Animal Protection, there are fundamental practices that every poultry farmer needs to adopt to realise better production – whether the chicken is a broiler, a layer or kienyeji. He adds that for farmers to optimise their production they should strive to ensure the chicken’s fundamental needs are met.

Feeding and watering

Due to progress in genetic selection and breeding, the poultry industry has been able to reduce the time it takes to get broilers to market weight (2kg) from eight weeks (1978) to six weeks (1990s) to five weeks (2005).

According to Dr Yamo, to record this productivity, farmers must provide broilers with quality feeds and clean water.

He notes that broilers are fed on a two-stage diet starting with Broiler Starter followed by Broiler Finisher.

The feeds should be clean and supplied in clean equipment unlike in Victoria’s case where the feed is littered on the floor. Improperly stored feeds get contaminated by bacteria and grow mould, which then infect the birds leading to depressed production.

Dr Yamo says some of the disease-causing organisms that contaminate feeds when ingested will remain on the chicken meat or be passed into the eggs, ending up in the consumer’s plate and leading to disease outbreaks in humans.

The fast growth rate of chickens has been shown to cause lameness in heavy birds: the bird’s legs cannot simply carry the body weight.

Such chickens also suffer from Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS), which is equivalent to an acute heart attack in humans. This has led the poultry breeders to start considering producing slower growing birds to reduce such losses.

Proper housing to curb overcrowding

Victoria’s second mistake, according to Dr Yamo, is providing little space for her chicken. A proper chicken shed should provide adequate room for the birds to move around, provide adequate ventilation and sufficient natural light while protecting the chicken from elements of climate and predators.

“Overcrowding causes discomfort. Any kind of discomfort will increase the animal’s stress levels, which then translates to low production and predisposes the chickens to disease and in Victoria’s case could be the reason for periodic disease outbreaks that wipe out the whole flock,” says Yamo.

Insufficient space increases the risk of the chickens hurting each other from vices such as pecking, which lead to cannibalism.

The floor of a chicken house should also be covered with at least six inches of good quality litter that is clean and dry. Overstocking can lead to fast wetting of the litter and accumulation of ammonia from the chicken droppings as seen in Victoria’s case.

Observing for distress, disease and injury

According to Dr Yamo, Victoria suffered from periodic disease outbreaks, which occasionally wiped out her flock, principally due to poor management. The flock was overstocked in a unit that was poorly ventilated with poor hygiene.

Victoria needs to urgently work with the local animal health service provider to institute a flock health management system on her farm.

Critical aspects of such a programme include proper hygiene, for example, cleaning the feeders and drinkers daily, proper poultry house clean-out and disinfection, improved bio-security system and regular vaccination to prevent diseases.

When there is an outbreak as recorded on Victoria’s farm, she should consult the nearest veterinary office for them to make a diagnosis and advice on the effective treatment regime.

It is important to ensure chickens are vaccinated against Newcastle, Gumboro and infectious bronchitis for broilers, while layers should be vaccinated against fowl pox, fowl typhoid and fowl cholera in addition to the three broiler vaccinations.

Natural conditions

Dr Yamo notes that chickens naturally dust bathe, perch and scratch hence the need to provide them with adequate dry and comfortable litter and enrichment (places to perch) within their environment. It is important to ensure the litter is dry because wet litter promotes bacterial growth, which leads to contamination and disease.

This would mean good litter for them to scratch (as it is chicken behaviour), natural lighting and darkness and proper aeration. The birds should be provided opportunities to perch, forage, explore or dust-bathe.

An environment that is as natural as possible puts chickens at ease. This boosts their production of eggs and meat.

Keep the birds at ease

It is important that farm work does not cause any fear or distress to the birds. The farm worker should minimise any actions that will cause fear to the chickens.

When handling farm routines, attempts should be made to ensure the chickens are not disturbed unnecessarily.