Farms are the same – but some fail and others succeed to become showcase model farms. There are many difficulties that are experienced by new and small-scale poultry producers and these can be surmounted if only we understand where the problem is.
Agriculture extension officers and farm management experts now say that farm projects fail due to three factors: ‘farm blindness’, poor access to markets resulting in cash-flow and production management problems, and inefficient disease management.
Farm blindness is defined as farmers’ lack of knowledge resulting in them regarding the situation on their farm as being the norm everywhere. When farmers do not know enough about farming poultry, they end up [with] poor bird performance and animal welfare. They are, however, unaware that this is a problem, because they do not know any better.
Training and information sharing is today recommended as the solution to these problems. This is because, farmers who are equipped with the correct knowledge will learn and so become accustomed to what ‘normal’ is. Some of these farm knowledge can be acquired through constant monitoring and observation of birds and with time a farmer can identify stress signals early and address these before a situation gets out of control.
So why do poultry farmers fail?
No feasibility study
In most cases, farmers make little or no effort to carry out a feasibility study. You need a feasibility study to know whether there are suppliers and other important role players in the vicinity of your farm. The most important of these are the suppliers of day-old chickens, point-of-lay hens, feed, medicine, disinfectants and vaccines. Also you need to know whether there are veterinary services, reference laboratories, abattoirs, processing and, crucially, a reliable market. Do not locate your project far from the market and it will only increase your costs, especially during rainy season.
To become commercially viable and sustainable, an emerging farmer must provide the chickens with the correct type of housing for the production system practised. The main purpose of poultry housing is to provide chickens with a healthy, comfortable environment to ensure optimal production at an affordable price. The following are important environmental conditions inside chicken houses:
Chickens are warm-blooded animals with a body temperature between 40,6°C to 41,7°C. When a chicken hatches, its body temperature goes down to about 39,7°C. Chickens cannot maintain their body temperature. So in order to maintain it inside the house, the roofs and walls must be insulated. A corrugated iron chicken house becomes an oven during the hot season and a fridge during the cold season. When it is cold, the chicks gather at a corner and climb on top of each other, resulting in several suffocating. Hot temperatures also result in fatalities.
The purpose of air flow is to introduce fresh air, remove stale air and control the temperature in the house. In open-sided houses, this flow is controlled by means of plastic curtains. It is therefore important for these curtains to open from the top to bottom, leaving a ‘skirt’ at the bottom; this prevents cold air from blowing directly onto the chickens. In addition, the curtains must be held in place on the side by solid panels to prevent them from moving away from the house. Many of the curtains at failed projects closed from the top to bottom or were controlled with poles.
Many emerging farmers do not have any experience in rearing chickens and cannot manage a high number per square metre. It is recommended that a beginner farmer should have no more than 10 chickens/ m2.
Broilers have been specifically bred to grow fast (38g to 2,5kg in six weeks) but to reach this, the chickens must be provided with the correct feed. Because feed cost is high (about 70% of production cost), some farmers mixed good quality feed with lower grade feed, resulting in poor growth performance. Many farmers rely on public transport, which increases the price of a 50kg bag of feed significantly.
This is one of the greatest problems. Some farmers fail to honor their contracts – even with supplies – while others cannot handle their finances. Most do not put money back into the business. Because of these problems, many end up selling live birds and consume the profit. Some farmers doing layers sell them in their active laying period incurring losses.
Most farmers embark on poultry farming without receiving training, a fact evident in the way they rear the birds.
A farm should have a biosecurity programme that is designed to prevent diseases from entering or spreading on the farm. Two of the most critical aspects are access control and disinfection of persons and vehicles entering the premises. A farmer should not allow people and vehicles to enter and leave the premises at will, and buyers should not be allowed to enter chicken houses freely. This is one of the surest ways of introducing disease.
The erratic nature of the market has several negative knock-on effects. Firstly, uncertain cash flow, makes it difficult for farmers to make advance payments for inputs, such as feed, chicks or point of lay pullets.
Cash flow can become severely strained by delays in sales and an inability to recover funds spent in the previous cycle. Access to funds without security is also near impossible, which means that these farmers are only able to procure inputs when they have money in hand. Poor cash flow and not being able to achieve economies of scale, result in farmers not being able to buy products such as feed in bulk, and thus reap the benefit of resultant cost savings. Secondly, it results in birds being kept longer than necessary, which in effect delays the commencement of a new production cycle because the farmer has no money to order new stock. For instance, Broilers are usually kept for 35 to 39 days before they are sold live and if they exceed this period they do not offer the farmer any good income.
Money is also lost because these birds prevent the facility from being used to its full potential. Just imagine how much money a farmer loses by keeping 20 birds instead of his [full] production capacity of say 100 birds.
A farmer should make advance orders on his chicks and point of lay pullet producers, so that they can adjust their planning to ensure sufficient supply for their customers. If a farmer is unable to confirm an order in advance, there is no guarantee that he/she will be able to get chicks from a hatchery, or secure point of lay pullets when they are needed.
Small-scale chicken farmers
Consumers who buy live birds usually take only a small quantity at a time, which results in farmers not using their production facilities to their full potential. Farmers need to restock houses as soon as possible after [a] batch has left and the facility has been cleaned and prepared for the next consignment. A producer loses money every day the poultry facility stands empty.
The same applies to feed, bedding and vaccines. Failure to secure enough feed at the start of the production cycle can result in a farmer struggling to do so throughout the entire production cycle.
There is, in effect, a danger that feed may not be available when it is needed, which can result in birds taking longer to reach their target weight. Birds might also become stressed, which could render them more vulnerable to disease.
Vaccines are another case in point. Birds will not receive optimal protection if they do not receive a vaccine at the right time.
To overcome these challenges, farmers are advised to have birds slaughtered when demand is low, freeze them and then sell frozen birds on demand. While the price might not be as good, the farmers will at least be able to use their production facilities optimally, and they will be able to adhere to their production planning programme. Better planning will help root out inefficiencies that add costs to production. It will result in houses never standing empty when they should be populated, birds never going without feed and farmers getting the best quality replacement stock.
Disease management is another great challenge for small-scale farmers. Birds that are sick or recovering from a disease generally eat less and produce less meat or eggs. Some diseases can be treated, which adds to cost of production, but in extreme cases, whole flocks might have to be culled to eradicate a disease. Farmers primarily struggle with disease management due to poor-quality chicks, poor management practices and inefficient vaccination programmes.
Poor-quality chicks can often be linked to inefficient planning.
Failure to order birds in advance often results in farmers having to settle for what they can get, which usually turns out to be lower quality chicks. These birds might be more vulnerable to diseases than better quality birds, and they will also require more inputs, such as feed, to reach their target weight. Do not be in a rush.