Poultry farmers grapple with voracious mites

Poultry farmers are struggling with a new wave of voracious mites that are curbing egg production, causing blood stains in egg yolks that mean eggs cannot be sold, and even killing poultry. But eradication can be as easy as applying Vaseline and Coke to hens’ houses, say ethno veterinarians.

Red mites and chicken mites have been a huge headache to poultry farmers in areas such as Thika, where farmers now report rising numbers of poultry deaths even with multiple application of conventional insecticides.

The mites, most of which are nocturnal, suck blood from the birds at night, while hiding in cracks and crevices on the roosts, walls, ceiling, and floors, under clods of dirt or manure, or in nests during the day. Hens sitting on eggs may even be attacked during daytime.

The mites then stick to the host for their entire life cycle, burrowing into the scaled skin on the feet and shanks of the birds. Wild birds are also contracting the pest where they have prolonged contact with infested birds or environments, such as doves or eagles that have built nests near poultry houses.

Mite-infested birds start exhibiting a brittle, flaky or powdery appearance on their legs. The blood-sucking insects also leave the birds anemic, reducing their productivity and ability to withstand and overcome other diseases.

Due to the tendency of mites to congregate around the vent of poultry, they can also reduce a rooster's ability to mate successfully.

Meat birds infected with the mites suffer blemishing in the form of scabby areas on the skin, while infected laying flocks experience a fall off in egg production with advanced stages of the infestation leading to blood spotting on eggs that makes them unfit for sale.

Fidelis Ngotho of Ngotho Poultry in Kenya knows the effect of mites on egg production. Having been a leading supplier to hotels in Thika, Fidelis’s business reached a tipping point when the eggs she supplied to the hotels kept being returned to her. At one point, all 20 trays she had supplied to the hotels were returned at once.

“They complained that there were red spots in the eggs and that customers were complaining. I was also advised that it wasn’t healthy for the customers,” said a bemused Fidelis. She moved to improve the quality of the feeds thinking that the problem was poor diet, but there was no change.

It took her month before she realised that a colony of red insects had been responsible for the death of 10 of her fowls. “Piecing everything together and seeking veterinary advice had come too late. I had recorded such huge looses that I even started selling the remaining poultry, bidding goodbye to a business I had practiced for five years,” she said.

But she didn’t quite quit and has now put in place measures that have seen her protect the new chicks she has bought.

Many poultry farmers decry the prohibitive cost of insecticides to control the mites, and even claim that they don’t work, but ethno veterinarians argue there are other cost effective, tried and tested remedies that work on mites.

Karanja Mumo who has worked with Fidelis says mites are able to live away from the host bird for some time, but cannot survive for long. Most mites are transferred between flocks through poultry handling equipment like crates, clothing, and by rodents, meaning that hygiene is of utmost importance.

However, simple and inexpensive methods like smearing a mixture of Paraffin and Vaseline into cracks and crevices where mites live and pouring Coke into cracks work wonders by dissolving the waxy outer coating of the mite, which then causes them to dry out, dehydrate and die.

“Another simple tool that works is using a dust bath so that when mites hop onto the birds at night, they will rub against the diatom and die,” said Karanja, who is now spreading the word on  inexpensive mite control measures to an area that is struggling from a largely ignored threat.

Ethno veterinarians also advise farmers to carry out random checks on poultry by blowing on the birds feathers where the mites seek safe haven.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter