Many birds may get ill and grow slowly, producing fewer eggs and less meat. Birds that roam everywhere may easily catch and spread diseases. When one bird has a contagious disease, there is a greater risk that all birds in the village will get it. If there is a general lack of essential nutrients, resistance against diseases is low – Improved free range poultry rearing
Village poultry production often encounters problems related to lack of organization, which implies that local inputs, such as feed, medication, veterinary services, and training, are rarely available locally. Without organization and knowledge about the potentials of village poultry, the absence of an enabling environment, the farmers, mostly women, receive very little support and advice from each other or from extension workers. As a consequence village-based small-scale poultry production remains rudimentary in most places.
Normally village poultry form small groups consisting of 5-10 hens with one cock, but flocks may vary from one up to around 30 adults and young growers, depending on the feed resource base and disease level in the area.
Up to this number they will still be able to recognize each other, which will help diminishing conflicts among the birds. Each cock or hen in the flock enjoys his or her special status in relation to the others, implying that some have priority over others when choosing places for nesting, for resting, for scavenging, etc.
High-ranking animals will have nice feathers and combs, and their posture will show their dominant position. If a low-ranking hen comes too close to the territory of a hen of higher rank, the latter will indicate this by stretching her neck and turning her bill towards the intruder.
Normally this will suffice for the other to retire. The ranking may change according to age, brooding, and other factors. The system of more or less stable dominance is very practical, since the animals can be free to concentrate on finding food and watch out for enemies.
Poultry have a very constant rhythm day in and day out. In the early morning and late afternoon they scavenge for food. Later in the morning the hens will often lay eggs, and after midday they will rest. When they sleep at night, they prefer to sit high in order not to be easy preys for predators.
To protect against very high or low temperatures and to be fit to escape predators, it is important for birds to have good feathers. They therefore spend much time cleaning and preening their feathers with their beaks. In order to protect themselves against external parasites, they dust bathe several times each day.
In general, it only takes a little continuous attention every day to improve your free range poultry production. But before starting, it is highly advisable to make calculations of whether the enterprise will be profitable or not.
Improved free-range poultry rearing
A village hen often weighs no more than 1.2 – 1.5 kg at the point of lay. A village cock weighs maybe 1.4 – 2.0 kg at age of maturity. Poultry need a good supply of varied feed and of clean water. Depending on the time of the year they will be able to find part of their feed by scavenging in the surroundings of the household. But often they will need an extra supply of nutrients in order to gain weight and for hens to lay a good quantity of eggs. Especially the small chicks need good protein rich feeds as balanced feeds or from simple supplementary sources such as maggots, snails, termites etc.
Improve your housing for hens
A simple night-basket or chicken house will diminish the risk of loss because of bad weather, predators and thieves. Inside the house the birds need perches to sit on when they sleep. If you put the nests inside the house as well, it is easy to find the eggs, and the hens will not be disturbed.
For table egg production, you only need hens. However, some farmers keep one cock with the hens to watch for predators and to facilitate the pecking order, thus minimizing conflicts within the flock. To produce fertile, hatch-able eggs, you will need one cock for approximately 10-15 hens. When surplus cocks reach a marketable size, they should be sold, slaughtered, or given away as presents, to prevent the cocks from eating the scarce feed resources, as well as fighting and stressing the hens.
Always take into consideration that the size of the flock should match the size of the house.
When will a free range hen lay eggs?
Often a free-range hen will lay the first eggs at the age of 22-28 weeks and lay 3-4 clutches of 10-15 eggs a year, depending on season, and in particular availability of feeds.
A hen will often find a dark, quiet place for laying eggs and for brooding. She does not want to be disturbed by the others, and she wants to feel safe from predators and passers-by. Unfortunately, many eggs go bad before they are hatched, because of disturbance, lack of nests, and annoying ecto-parasites making the hen leave the nest frequently, with resulting low hatchability.
After 21 days of incubation remaining eggs will hatch. Most free-range poultry keepers will let young chicks follow the mother hen immediately after hatching. The result is very high chick mortality during the first weeks of age, mainly due to predation by eagles and snakes, drowning, from road accidents and general chick exhaustion.
Vaccination of chickens
Vaccinate all birds against Newcastle Disease and other prevailing diseases such as Fowl Pox on a regular basis to prevent high mortality.
Small chicks should be vaccinated against the common contagious diseases at the age of 2-3 weeks. Revaccination should always be performed according to the instructions (see chapter 4 on disease and health management.
Farming South Africa – Improved free range poultry rearing
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