Simple purple dye saves free range chicks from biggest killer

Predators are the single greatest threat for free range chicken farmers, but a local organisation has developed a purple dye that is saving more than 60 per cent of chicks previously threatened by hawks.

Regional organisation Bridge Africa found in a 2010 survey that the greatest threat to free range chicks in Kenya was attacks by predators, accounting for 70 per cent of the deaths of free range chicks, followed by Newcastle disease, which accounts for 25 per cent.

However, the purple dye sprayed on chicks confuses the hawks, which can no longer see the chicks from the skies. “With the chicks dyed, hawks and other predators are unable to see them from high above, saving them the attack. The purple colour resembles some ground cover, which helps camouflage the chicks,” said Joyce Wanjiku, an officer from Farm Input Promotion, the not for profit organisation assisting livestock keepers with the project.

The purple dye is made by mixing a powder with warm water. Farmers then spray the dye on the chicks with only a small application sticking to the chick’s feathers for 2 months. A bottle of the powder is enough to make enough dye for more than 250 chicks. “I have been using it since last year with encouraging results, I have over 100 chicks, which had been giving me a headache trying to stay around as they scavenged to ensure that no hawks attacked them, but the hawks would at times come stealthily and swift, even under my watch, so I had lost all hope,” said Laban Ndungu, a livestock farmer from Laikipia.

To increase the survival rates of the chicks further, the organisation has also developed a cage that houses the chicks protecting them for up to four months when brooding ends and they are mature enough to ward off potential predators. The cage, retailing at Sh450, allows the chicks and the mother to feed and scratch well protected from predators.

The moves to protect the livestock is set to help thousands of livestock keepers who have invested in free range chicken that fetch higher prices than broiler, which sell for around Sh400 compared with Sh600-Sh800 for free range chickens. The eggs of the free range chickens also earn more due to their higher nutritional value.

Driven by the rise of the free range sector, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute(KARI) has also developed new free range chickens that mature faster and are not prone to diseases.

However the biggest challenge has been in containing predators, chief among them hawks, which strike in the blink of an eye.  Brooding hens have an instinct of identifying imminent dangers and warning their chicks to take cover in case of the presence of predators, but they have not been effective in warding off hawks.