BETTER PRODUCTION: BY BREEDING OR MANAGEMENT?
Family poultry is well integrated into most village farming systems, with local breeds representing 40 to 70 percent of the national meat and egg supply in most tropical countries.
Because of their scavenger adaptability, production ability and low cost, local breeds are kept by rural smallholders, landless farmers and industrial laborers.
It is difficult to imagine birds better adapted for survival under scavenger free-range conditions than the breeds that have already evolved under those very same conditions, and are still surviving as proof of their ability to do so.
However, there does remain a considerable and largely unexploited potential for increased production from local breeds through improved management.
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The critical management objective for scavenger free-range systems is to reduce the high mortality in both growing and adult age groups, but especially the 60 to 70 percent mortality in the growers. This high mortality means that many eggs laid by the hen need to be used for reproduction to maintain flock size, instead of for sale or consumption.
It also means that many birds that die could instead be sold or consumed as meat.
The problem with local breeds, as outlined above, is not inherently low egg production or low meat production, but high mortality.
Breed improvement to increase meat or egg production would not solve the health and nutrition management problems. However, increased egg production (by breed improvement) would create a new problem – lack of broodiness in the flock – which would force the smallholder to buy stock rather than have the hen brood and rear her own.
Mortality can be significantly reduced through increasing farmer awareness of health needs, through the provision of vaccine (especially for Newcastle Disease) and through improving the nutrition of growing stock (for example, by providing creep feeding systems).
These are the most important improvements to management activities that will enable to the farmer to best exploit the existing potential of local breeds under scavenging free-range conditions.
If management resources available to the smallholder or landless farmer increase to the extent of a local supply of balanced poultry feed, the options open to his income-generating ability are increased. However, the answer is not to confine local breeds in intensive management systems.
The performance of local breeds will increase slightly under cage or deep litter management but, because the genetic potential for egg production (or meat production) of local breeds is lower than that of commercial hybrids, the same investment in intensive management will achieve a much higher production result by using commercial hybrids.
If balanced feed, good health-care supplies and day-old chicks of hybrid varieties are locally available, then intensive poultry management is an option. If these are not available, raising local breeds under scavenger free-range systems is still the best choice.
The vast potential for increasing income generation from scavenger free-range family poultry clearly lies in the management area of reducing mortality in growing chickens.
This alone is sufficient challenge for the already overstretched resources of government and NGO field extension staff in developing countries.
The potential for breed improvement is a factor to be considered in the future, but only when the more immediate objective of reducing mortality is attained. Meanwhile efforts should be continued to preserve germ plasm as a resource for the future.
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