Farmer Yohannes holds his sixteen (16) eggs, five hundred Ethiopian Birr and his brand new savings account book for his first ever bank account with only two entries – the starting balance and one subsequent saving deposit. He is celebrating a successful chicken farming enterprise; a partnership with his wife who helped feed the chickens at the right time and with his daughter who kept the records. Besides all that, he is also a converted believer to proper animal husbandry. This may be the reason Tadelle Dessie, a scientist in animal genetics and breeding; and the project leader, based at ILRI’s Addis Ababa campus, says that ‘chicken farming is the first ladder in the pathways out of poverty’ when we discuss the project with him.
When researchers from the project conducted a survey in the villages two years ago, they discussed with the farmers the quality of the chicken they would like to have. Using the previous survey results and the participatory rural appraisal (PRA) conducted in 2011; traits of importance for the farmers were identified. The farmers wanted chicken that grew bigger (for meat) and laid more eggs. With that, the Horro chicken improvement project was birthed.
He wanted a weapon to prove that science was wrong! Instead, he is smiling all the way to the bank.
The farmers in Horro district had never really paid much attention to their chicken because they had goats, sheep and cattle and they also grew maize, potatoes, pulses and teff. Subsequently, farmer Yohannes started out a skeptic, believing the scientists just wanted to please the villagers with all the promises of improved quality and production. When he got his batch of twenty (20) exotic chickens from the project as a test, he obeyed everything he was told about the chickens’ management only because he wanted a weapon to prove that science was wrong! Instead, he is smiling all the way to the bank.
Like all the other chicken farmers in the district, he believes a cock is necessary for hens to lay so he was given three. He sold one cock for 200 Ethiopian birr, has released one to free range feeding due to cannibalism and one is with the hens. Still the one that is outside comes to fight over the wire mesh fence. Two hens also died and Yohannes estimates that 13 hens are laying.
Hawune Hirpa is soldiering on despite huge losses. A widowed mother of five (5) children, she lost 21 out of 23 of her initial cross bred chicken that the project had given to her. She then got a replacement flock of 15 hens. We found her drying the chickens’ bedding of straw in the sun after disinfecting it – a practice the scientists say is odd. They recommend the all in all out strategy- meaning the chicken and their bedding come in together and leave together when the productivity of the chicken is diminished. She said she is aware that she lost her first chicken because of poor management. She took them to the veterinary doctor when they were already sick. Now she wants to prevent the illness before it strikes.
Listening to Hawune, one hears the struggles of a single mother, who is also the family’s sole breadwinner. She collects 3 eggs per day and sells them for 2 Ethiopian birr each. She has an extra room that she rents out as a shop for 40 Ethiopian birr a month. She thinks that renting out is bringing her a better income and regrets that she got into chicken business. She fails to see that with only 20 eggs, which she collects in one week, she would have repaid the cost of the space the chickens are occupying. Still, she asks the researchers to help her get feed for her Holstein cow suggesting that she does see some benefits from her interaction with them.
The grass is always greener on the other side
Wondmen Esatu, an ILRI/ Wagenigen University PhD student is working on: ‘Improving village chicken production to elevate livelihoods of poor people in Ethiopia’. This is a joint research project of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research (EIAR) and Wageningen University (WU) funded by Koepon Foundation.
He is working with 20 farmers in different four kebeles (villages) in Horro District. Farmers received initial training on practical chicken production at the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Centre. Each farmer was then asked to construct a chicken house separate from the one they already had, introduce a footbath at the entrance and provide straw (mostly teff) for the bedding. The feed, feeder, drinker, disinfectant and chicken were provided by the project.
Wondi gave different varieties to different farmers. To some he gave commercial chicken from the Netherlands, to the second group he gave a cross breed between the Horro hen and imported RIR cock and to the final group he gave the sixth generation improved Horro chickens. None of the farmers knew the type of chicken they had received nor that the researcher had his own chicken of the same varieties that he was running as a test at Debre Zeit. They were only given instructions on how to manage them.
Listening to Hawune, one hears the struggles of a single mother, who is also the family’s sole breadwinner…
As the chicken progressed in growth and farmers observed each other’s chicken, attitudes changed and so did the level of care. Some farmers religiously obeyed instructions; others thought the neighbor had better chicken so they neglected their own to coerce the researchers to change the type. So they were promised a choice in the next phase of the experiment.
‘Interventions are expensive so the number of chicken should be increased’ says Wondmeneh. He adds that one intervention such as better housing leads to a chain that includes improved feeding, the footbath, vaccines and even record keeping. Few farmers follow the rules concerning their own dressing before they go to the chicken house, the footbath and even record keeping.
Improving two parallel characteristics at the same time – egg laying and growth- is a huge challenge to researchers. Wondmeneh says that the ability to lay more eggs more frequently undermines the ability to grow. ‘That is why commercially we have broilers for meat and layers for eggs’, he says to me almost teasingly. It is very hard for the community to understand that. They want a chicken that does both. As dual purpose chickens, they can produce less egg than layers and grow less than broilers.
In the current breeding program at Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center, sixteen (16) weeks after hatching they take the body weights of all the chicken ( males and females) and then at 45 weeks ( on hens only), they check the females egg laying ability. Those that weigh high at week 16 will be maintained till the egg number of the hens at week 45 is known. The hens and cocks which are heavy in weight and those that gave many eggs will be maintained to be parents for the next generation. This selective breeding program is underway for the last six generations. The improved chickens are laying eggs one and a half months earlier than the traditional time. The frequency has also moved from one egg a week to three eggs a week which is more than 100% increase statistically.