Researchers set sight on free range chickens as demand soars

Kenyan researchers are focusing attention on traditionally neglected indigenous chicken as demand hits all time high with data showing 40 percent of those who buy chicken and their products prefer free range variety due to their nutritional value.

This is attributed to the health benefits of the variety with a growing health conscious driving this demand.
Farmers aware of this demand are scrambling with to access the indigenious brands and growing them commercially unlike traditionally when they were kept as a side activity.

According to the 2009 Household and livestock census Kenyan poultry population was estimated to be 32 million birds with 80 percent being free-ranging indigenous chicken, 19 percent commercial layers and broilers, while the rest being other poultry species.

Aware of the importance that the free range chickens have gained among Kenyans, the Kenya Agricultural Research institute (KARI) has stepped up its resolve to improve the indigenous chicken to encourage more commercialization.
The objectives of KARI are to increase indigenous chicken productivity, generated income and ultimately enhancing food security among rural households.  KARI’s indigenous poultry research work during the last decade has included improvement in feeding and nutrition, selection and breeding of genotypes for eggs and meat lines and development of management packages for disease control housing.  

To catalyze the process of disseminating improved technologies and interventions, KARI has over the years trained over 60 indigenous chicken service providers at the Kenya Arid and Semi Arid Lands (KASAL) indigenous chicken project that cover various districts in the country.  In turn the service providers have reached over 200,000 farmers with improved technologies.

This has impacted positively on the households where deaths of indigenous chicken has decreased from 80 to 10 percent and consequently this has doubled the household flock size from an average of 20 to 50 birds, between 2008 and 2010. The project is a public private partnership between KARI and the Ministry of Agriculture both from the public sector and WACAL an NGO and Jayfresh Ltd  a private enterprises Newcastle disease control.

Another line of focus has been taming the Newcastle disease which affects over 80 to 100 percent of free ranging chicken annually. The focus of the indigenous chicken project has been on producing comprehensive Newcastle disease control extension package while building capacity of key stakeholders along the value chain.

Dissemination  included capacity building and equipping 32 service providers from 5 lower Eastern Kenya districts with specialized vaccine handling and administration skills, knowledge and information which allows them to contribute to the process of disease control at the firm level.  Service provision was delivered in a business model to cover the cost of vaccine and ensure sustainability. Six months after the training over 80 percent of the sampled households in each district had adopted vaccination as a disease control measure.

A new vaccine dubbed live thermostable avirulent 1-2 ND and which is administered through eye drops has been one of the major breakthroughs in the fight against Newcastle disease responsible for over 80 percent deaths in free range chicken. Vaccines that existed before never focused on arid and rural areas where indigenous poultry keeping is practiced.

Conventional Newcastle vaccines like LaSota B1, F and V4-HR cannot be used in arid and rural since they require refrigeration during transportation and storage to be effective while being packaged in expensive and unfavourable packages for small flocks. The new vaccine however withstand harsh temperatures for long making it convenient to the other 26 million free range chickens reared in the country. The vaccine which costs Sh 2 a dose, is a departure from the conventional vaccines which goes for over Sh 50 a dose, requires only one eye drop to protect the bird for four months

KARI has also been involved in Indigenous chicken selection and breeding.  A flock of 2000 birds made up of various gene types like normal, frizzled, naked neck, kuchi, dwarf and ecotypes from around the country have been maintained for selection for traits of economic importance which include egg production growth.

This  work has led to improvement in egg from 80eggs under normal free range conditions to 180 eggs under year and maturity age at first egg reduced by half from 12 to six months. This work is ongoing and involves collaborative efforts between KARI, Egerton University and MoLD.

This has been followed by the multiplication and sale of improved indigenous chicken. Under this programme there is a selected nucleus flock of 1000 indigenous chicken for production of fertile eggs for hatching of day old chicks for research and commercial purposes.  The unit has a modern hatching facility for this purpose with a capacity of 19,000 eggs.

Since June 2010 to date over 100,000 improved indigenous chicken breeding stock were availed to farmers through sales. The research body plans to upgrade the breeding flock so as to meet the increasing demand.

In addition, the KARI Naivasha poultry facility has a semi automated slaughter and cold storage facility that addresses whole value chain from specific input supply to production, processing marketing and consumption.