Knowing and assesssng chickens to select ones with good traits.

Village chickens are an important form of livestock in Papua New Guinea. They were first introduced by early settlers from South-east Asia some 2-3000 years ago. Today, village chickens have vital social, cultural and economic values in many communities around the country. However, they are still commonly kept as free-range flocks that live outdoors and scavenge for feed. Surveys by the National Agricultural Research Institute have found that there is a great need to up-skill rural farmers so that they would be able to raise village chickens well. The Institute is trying to address this through trainer of trainers’ workshops under the European Union funded Drought Resilience Project. One of the essential skills participants are shown is how to select and maintain birds of good traits (qualities) during stressful circumstances, without suffering total loss of flocks. This is particularly important as selected birds could be used to start-up new flocks, after stressful events such as droughts or disease outbreaks have lapsed.

In order for farmers to do good selections of chickens to maintain, they have to change from merely ‘keeping’ to seriously ‘looking after’ their flocks. This means farmers will have to improve the welfare of their chickens. One of the most important things they need to do is to provide shelter. Birds need to be housed safely at night and during bad weather. Under these circumstances, their indoor feed and water rations have to be catered for on a regular basis. In addition, nest boxes have to be allocated to create safe environments for the hens to lay eggs and hatch new chicks

Daily interactions that arise from these activities will help to build closer relationships between farmers and their birds. This would also give farmers the opportunity to do regular assessment of their flocks. With time and dedication, they should be able to form better understandings about the habits, state of health and physical conditions of all their birds.  They should then be better informed to select birds of good traits to maintain, if and when the need arises.

The range of traits that people could base their preferences or selection criteria on can vary a lot across different communities. However, farmers are advised to focus on a number of recommended features. One of the most vital aspects to consider is the health of the birds. This is to ensure that selected birds do not carry any form of disability or disease that could affect the rest of the flock in the future. Things to look for in healthy birds include good body size and weight; brightness of the colours of feathers, combs and eyes; and an overall fitness of limbs and senses for effective movement, reflexes, feeding and mating capabilities. It is also important to select hens that could lay and hatch up to 15 eggs every week; and raise a good number of chicks.

Another vital thing farmers have to do is to apply the breeding ratio. This means that the number of roosters to hens has to be kept to a reasonable limit. In times of extreme stresses like droughts, it would be advisable for farmers to have at least one rooster for five hens. This is a drop from the normal ratio of one rooster for 10 hens.

After selection, birds with good traits should be separated from other birds and kept together in a different pen. In this situation, it is critical for farmers to pay close attention to the birds’ welfare. Farmers should keep the pen properly cleaned and ventilated with regular rotation of deep litter. This will help prevent diseases from breaking out or spreading further among the birds.

The separation of selected birds will also help to avoid overcrowding and risks of injury. Importantly, a  small number makes it possible for the nutritional need of every bird to be sufficiently met with limited rations. Critical care must be taken to ensure measures for the safe handling of feed and water rations are observed at all times to prevent them from being contaminated.

Furthermore, the separation also gives farmers the potential to avoid uncontrolled breeding. Farmers can decide the times they would like birds to mate to produce fertilized eggs. This would control the number of birds and thereby help to manage limited feed and water resources during stressful events like droughts.

If the situation becomes unsustainable; farmers also have other options to consider. They could reduce the number of selected flock by selling some of the birds; giving some to other farmers to raise on their behalf; or ultimately slaughtering some for their own consumption.

When the welfare of selected birds is managed well, farmers should have at least one rooster and a couple of hens left at the end of a stressful period. They could then use these birds to start-up a new flock of village chickens of good traits.

Over the past couple of years, we have conducted two training of trainers’ workshops to impart this and other innovative farming skills for disaster resilience. More than forty rural development officers, model farmers and extension officers from Momase, New Guinea Islands and the Southern region have attended these workshops. With farmer training manuals they received; they are training poultry farmers in rural communities to manage their birds with greater levels of resilience, come what may.