What’s not to love about village chickens?

food security women village chickensIf anyone knows chickens, veterinary scientist Robyn Alders AO does. Over the past 20 years, Robyn has been instrumental in rolling out a sustainable vaccination program that immunises chickens against Newcastle disease, empowering women by providing them with a dependable source of income and nutritious food.

Poultry have been domesticated for thousands of years with archaeological evidence suggesting that domesticated chickens existed in China 8,000 years ago. While there is an amazing array of fancy breeds of chickens, in many countries, village or indigenous breeds of chickens continue to exist in a collaborative venture with their human owners as they have done for many centuries.

Village chickens can be found in low- to middle-income countries and play a vital role in many resource-poor rural households. They provide scarce animal protein and micronutrients in the form of meat and eggs and can be sold or bartered to meet essential family needs such as medicine, clothes and school fees. Village poultry are active in pest control, provide manure, are required for special festivals and are essential for many traditional ceremonies. The output of village chickens is lower than that of intensively raised birds but it is obtained with a minimum input in terms of housing, disease control, management and supplementary feeding. They are frequently owned and managed by women and children and are often essential elements of female-headed households.

In many countries, social goodwill is created by offering guests a meal containing meat; more often than not, chicken. Honoured guests can be given a live bird to take home as a mark of respect. Chickens and chicken products can be sold to obtain items that enable families to participate fully in community activities. In most locations village chickens fetch a premium price at market as consumers prefer their flavour and frequently believe that they are a healthier alternative to intensively raised chickens. Indigenous chickens have many advantages in mixed farming systems as they are small, reproduce easily, do not need large investment and can scavenge for food. They thrive on kitchen waste, broken grains, earthworms, snails, insects, vegetation, etc. As a result of their excellent scavenging skills, village chickens don’t directly compete with humans for scarce grains during the seasons when household food supply is low.

Research suggests that the genetic potential of village chickens is generally not the major constraint to their production under village conditions. In fact, in situations where there is limited supplementary feed, housing and veterinary medications, village chickens are much more likely to survive and reproduce than commercial breeds. The heavier commercial breeds often have problems escaping predators, are poor scavengers for feed and show poor broodiness, and so replacement stock must be purchased rather than raised in the village. One of the major constraints to production of village chickens is Newcastle disease. In countries where ND is endemic, outbreaks of this disease regularly result in mortalities of 50 to 100%. Collaborative research supported by the Australian Government on the control of ND in village chickens in Asia and Africa has developed a cost-efficient model for sustainable ND control in village chickens.

As the human population increases and arable land becomes increasingly scarce, a spectrum of research activities is needed, rather than putting all of our eggs in the high-tech basket. Policy reforms, reducing food wastage and increased efficiency of smallholder farmers, including village chicken farmers, have a role to play and each will require a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. A new five year Australian-funded project, implemented in collaboration with the governments of Tanzania and Zambia, aims to do just this: strengthen household nutrition and reduce childhood undernutrition by building on women’s roles in village chicken management and crop growth. This approach requires low investment, can contribute significantly to both poverty alleviation and food security and is already delivering encouraging results.

Robyn’s life work has certainly made a difference to chickens. Inspired? Send me your chicken stories, bones, heads, feet and feathers!

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