Picking from last year’s performance, I see an ever-evolving landscape in poultry meat production. Demand for chicken meat products is set to increase albeit at low levels.

With our national economy expected to shrink at a GDP of 6 per cent and inflation at 5.9 per cent according to African Economic Outlook (AEO) 2023, investing in people management and technology will be essential for poultry meat farmers to stay ahead of the curve.

To produce a kilo of meat at minimum feed consumption will require more than luck. Our poultry consumers will remain price-focused and with the volatility in the beef market, poultry meat farmers have a chance to excel.

Here are some of the most critical aspects of early flock management programs that a farmer needs to focus on to achieve high flock livability, fast early growth rate, high feed efficiency, and good animal welfare.

Flock health and biosecurity

Farm owner must protect their operations with good bio-security practices. Keep your farm neat and clean all the time and practice good husbandry. Poultry houses must be isolated from other forms of livestock, especially pigs, backyard poultry, wild animals, rodents, and pests as they tend to share similar diseases. Farm workers must visit different units in order of age from youngest to oldest.

All authorised visitors must change into or wear protective clothing, hair nets, and rubber or disposable boots on location before entering the premises. After depopulating, all old used litter must be removed after each cycle and taken off the farm before a new flock is placed.

Between flocks, it is a good practice to eliminate any rodents using appropriate rat baits. Rodents carry many diseases that adversely affect the health of poultry. A one-meter barrier around each house free of grass (preferably some concrete “apron”) must be maintained to prevent rodents from entering poultry houses.

Brooding is the key

The importance of brooding can’t be overstated. The brooding period, generally considered as the period from placement through 14 days, is perhaps the most important time in a bird’s life.  It (brooding) will determine how successful the broiler flock will be. Mistakes made during this critical time may be irreversible and negatively impact performance for the entire life of the flock.

The chick’s internal temperature can be measured using a child ear thermometer inserted in the vent. The hatched chick’s internal temperature should be 40 - 41 ºC (104 - 106 ºF). Check internal temperature above 41 ºC (106 ºF) will lead to panting. The chick’s internal temperature below 40 ºC (104 ºF) indicates that the chick is too cold.

A comfortable chick will breathe through its nostrils and lose 1-2 g of moisture in the first 24 hours. The yolk also contains 1-2 g of moisture, so the chick will lose weight but not become dehydrated. If chicks start panting, they can lose 5-10 grammes of moisture in the first 24 hours, and then dehydration will occur. Higher relative humidity will reduce moisture loss but also impair heat loss, so correct temperature is vital. Chicks from smaller eggs (younger breeder flocks) require higher brooding temperatures because they produce less heat. 

Set all ‘Jikos’ radiant brooders, and space heaters to the correct height (check with your local technician for your local requirements).  The house must be heated to the recommended temperature (35ºC) at chick level 24 hours before chick placement. Preheat the house floor long enough (minimum 2 days) before chicks arrive to reach a floor temperature of at least 27-29ºC. 

Improper brooding practices can result in poor livability, poor flock uniformity, and overall poor performance in the broiler and pen house leading to a higher chick cost. Obtaining a bodyweight at 7 days is an excellent indicator of how successful brooding management has been. This weight can be used as a “tool” to help illustrate the difference between well-managed and poorly-managed farms. The target body weight at 7 days is approximately 4 times the day-old chick weight. If this level of performance is not achieved, pre-placement and brooding management techniques should be critically evaluated.