Farmers chase cheaper, superior chicken breed

The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute has given the local chicken a makeover prompting pent up demand with more than 5,000 chickens being ordered monthly as farmers go for disease resistant high yielding varieties.

“In fact, to buy the chickens you must book beforehand. You have to place an order in good time to secure a day-old chick," Ms Lydia Waithera, a breeder at KARI Naivasha.

The new improved indigenous breed, which took KARI, Naivasha, close to 10 years of study to come up with, is raising excitement among farmers. "It's the best indigenous breed at the moment," said Centre director, Dr John Kariuki. "We had in mind the small-scale farmer when carrying out our research," he added.

So what is driving this demand? Compared to exotic chickens they are pocket-friendly and mature early at five-and-half months unlike the truly traditional, which reach maturity at 16 weeks.

The hen also has an improved egg-laying span, hitting a figure of between 150 and 180 eggs per laying period, an impressive figure, considering that most chicken lay an average of 80 eggs.

They can also sit on fertile eggs and one does not need to purchase an expensive incubator to ensure continuity of a healthy chicken regime.

At maturity, the hens have a live weight of between 1.8 kilos to two kilos, depending on its feeding regime. Cockerels, too, have a live weight of between 2.2 and 2.5 per kilo.

Adaptability of the chicken is also a strong selling point, as they can be reared in any part of the country. "In fact, they are best suited for arid and semi-arid areas," Ms Waithera added.

Just to ensure that the breed bought at the centre is not susceptible to opportunistic diseases, they are vaccinated on day one. "Vaccination is opening the door to real control of broiler diseases," she said.

Most homes in rural Kenya have them but indigenous chicken, though a valuable source of protein and income, often live under poor management and do not bring real value to their owners, besides being regarded mostly as ornamental creatures.

They are faced with risks of disease New-castle disease and gumboro, predators and poor nutrition, which expose their survival and productivity to danger, while inbreeding weakens breed quality.

These, coupled with a poor feeding regime by farmers, forced researchers back to the drawing board to come up with an improved chicken, because according to the researchers, indigenous chicken can be profitable and boost livelihoods if managed well.

The hybrid bird is meant to mitigate several factors including being resistant to diseases and having an improved egg laying span for the hens. The breed is also highly adaptable to harsh environmental conditions and has a tough immune system.

Nothing seems out of the ordinary with these chickens, but like pedigree cows, they have also attained high breed status and have better value characteristics.

Vaccination at the hatchery is slowly gaining credence and is developing quite fast within the poultry industry. Modern production incorporates proper vaccination programmes.