Livestock Research for Rural Development 25 (9) 2013 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

Citation of this paper

Small-scale family poultry production in north Gondar: characteristics, productivity and constraints

Tsegaw Fentie, Birhanu Abebe and Tesfu Kassa*

Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Gondar, PO Box 196, Gondar, Ethiopia
* Aklilu Lemma Institute of Pathobiology, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


The aim of this study was to assess the flock characteristics, husbandry and productivity of indigenous chickens and to identify the prevailing production constraints of chicken in North Gondar, northwest Ethiopia using questionnaire-based survey and on-site investigation. Responses were provided by 180 households in selected 6 farmer kebeles of four districts.


The result revealed that the main purposes of raising chickens were for replacing stock and for selling to generate cash income for immediate purchase of home requirements. The mean (+SD) household flock size reported was 9(5.9) in the range of 2-30 chickens. Flock size was not different among kebeles. The mean age at first lay of local chicken was 5.5(0.6) months and the mean number of eggs/hen/clutch was 15.1(2.5) eggs in 4.3(0.7) clutches. The local broody hens are the only means of egg incubation and brooding young chicks in the study area. The mean hatchability and survival rate of chicks at 8weeks of age was 84.6% and 54.2%, respectively. Only 24.4% of the households provided separate house and 68.4% share the main house for their chickens. About 97% of the households claimed to offer feed supplements and drinking water in both wet and dry seasons. Women and children were the predominant providers of care for chickens. Informal chicken marketing is practiced in the area and about 42% of live sales are made between farmer and consumers and 39% from farmer to traders. High chicken mortality was characteristic of the production system. Poultry disease (46.2%) and predation (27.1%) were claimed to be predominant causes of chicken loss. Newcastle disease was acknowledged as the biggest constraint of family chicken production. Poor health care, incidence of predation, poor housing and feeding management were identified constraints of village chicken production. Therefore, efforts should be geared towards the improvement of health and management practices through developing low-cost vaccination schemes and raising the awareness of poultry households.

Keywords: disease, Ethiopia, family poultry, management, performance


Small-scale family poultry play an important economic, nutritional and socio-cultural role in the livelihoods of poor rural households in many developing countries (Alders and Pym 2009). Despite the rapid development of commercial poultry systems worldwide, it has been estimated that more than 80% of the global poultry population occurs in traditional family-based production systems and contribute up to 90% of the total poultry products in many countries (Gueye 2009; Sonaiya and Swan 2005). Nearly all rural and peri-urban families in developing countries keep a small flock of free-range chickens (Jens et al 2004). The types of production inputs used in this system are few and are also poor in quality and low in quantity, so are the outputs. However, low level of risk of scavenging chickens farming has made it a choice of livelihood strategy for subsistence farmers (Sonaiya 2009). 

The traditional system is advantageous due to free feed resources in the surrounding environment and kitchen leftovers, use of local breeds that are adapted to their environment and preserved ability to incubate and brood naturally (Pedersen et al 2002). However, poor reproductive performance, poor growth rates, diseases, mortality, predation and low level of literacy among farmers are some of the major constraints in smallholder chicken production (Conroy et al 2005). 

Poultry production is deeply embedded in Ethiopian society kept by all strata of society from the landless rural poor to the well off in the cities (Wilson 2010; Tadelle et al 2003b). In the Ethiopian context poultry effectively means domestic chicken. Out of a total of 44.89 million chickens in Ethiopia, the small-scale family poultry production accounts for about 98% mainly indigenous birds (96.6%) (CSA 2012), and contributes to more than 90% of the national chicken meat and egg output (Dana et al 2010). A major comparative advantage of family poultry for poorer, more remote, rural communities is the conversion of labor into cash in a shorter time, with less capital requirement and with less risk than is the case with other livestock species. Though family poultry is not seen as a primary occupation by the producers, it is a source of significant income to rural families throughout Ethiopia. 

To date, there are limited studies conducted in the region targeting comprehensive description of the flock characteristics, production and reproduction performances of smallholder chicken and associated constraints and technological interventions that could be affordable to the resource poor rural communities. This study was conducted with the aim to characterize the flock structure and productivity of the domestic chicken, identify the prevailing chicken production constraints and understand the knowledge and practice of farmers about Newcastle disease and its control 

Materials and methods

Study area and study population 

The study was conducted in selected districts of North Gondar zone, Amhara National Regional State, located in the northwestern part of Ethiopia. Study districts included were Wogera, Dembia, Gondar Zuria and Gondar town, located between 700 and 778kms northwest of the capital, Addis Ababa. The study zone is located between geographically coordinates 12.3º to 13.38º north latitudes and 35.5º to 38.3º east longitudes and the altitude ranges from 550 to 4620 meters above sea level (masl) in western lowland and in north Semen Mountain, respectively. The average annual rain fall vary from 880mm to 1772 mm, which is characterized by a monomodal type of distribution. The mean annual minimum and maximum temperature is 10ºC in the highland and 44.5ºC in the lowland (NMA 2011).  

The indigenous chicken population in the study zone is estimated at 3.75million (CSA 2012). Most of the poultry is found in the highland and midhighland areas of the region, which is associated with the ecology and human demography. Indigenous chickens are major family poultry types in the area managed under backyard free-range system.  

Study design and sampling procedure 

A single-visit survey was carried out in November and December 2011 in four districts of North Gondar zone. A Multi-stage sampling procedure was applied for the study. Four districts with a high density of indigenous chickens were purposively selected among 12 districts in consultation with agriculture officers and six farmer kebeles were selected from these districts by simple random sampling technique. Thirty homes distant from each other were chosen randomly per farmer kebele. This sampling frame resulted into 180 households engaged in the entire study.   

Data collection  

Data obtained from the random interviews with individual farmers and poultry dealers using a pre-tested semi-structured questionnaire in order to obtain quantitative data. A total of 180 farmers were individually interviewed. Farmers’ participatory approach was used for focused group discussion and ranking some parameters to obtain qualitative data. A total of six focus group discussions were used to collect the general information. Direct observation of flocks, feeding and watering practices and poultry houses was done by the researcher. The information collected using semi-structured questionnaire included types of poultry reared, flocks size and composition, production and reproduction levels, housing, feeding, marketing, health and management problems. 

Data management and analysis 

Data management was done using Microsoft Excel work sheet and imported to Stata 8.2 (Stata Corp, College station, TX) for analysis. Data on flock composition and performance were analysed using the General Linear Model (GLM) procedure of Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) and t-test while others were expressed in percentages.  

Results and discussion

Flock size and structure  

The mean flock composition per household in the study area is shown in Table 1. The average flock size (ąSD) of chickens in the study areas was 9 (5.9) birds, in the range of 2-30 birds/household. There was no significant difference in flock size among the study districts and kebeles (P>0.05). The male to female chicken ratio was 1:3. While the mean numbers of hens and chicks were similar, those of cocks, pullets and cockerels were significantly (P<0.05) different among the different districts.

Table 1: Flock structure (mean+SD) of family chickens by district in North Gondar zone



Flock structure






Flock size 




















Gondar Zuria

















Gondar  town

































The present finding is in consistent with the report of Mekonnen (2007) in southern part of Ethiopia, who reported flock size of 9.2 with a range of 3-26 birds per household but higher than the previous report of 7.1 in northwest Ethiopia (Halima et al 2007).  Our finding also falls within the national average flock size range of 6 to 10 birds (Wilson 2010) and the African village flock size range of 5 to 20 birds, which according to Sonaiya and Swan (2005), seems to be the limit that can be kept by a family without special inputs in terms of feeding, housing and labour. However, the present result is lower than the values of 13 and 16 birds/household recorded for free range village chickens in Ethiopia by Moges et al (2010) in Bure district and by Tadelle et al (2003a) in central highlands of Ethiopia, respectively but higher than the report of Mammo et al (2008) which was 7.5 chickens in Jamma (South Wollo).  

Flock size and composition vary over time, however, as a function of natural recruitment, disease incidence and the occurrence of festivals which induce high rates of off-take through household consumption and sale. The male to female chicken ratio of 1:3 was similar to previous records for Ethiopian chickens; 1:2.5 (Tadelle et al 2003a) and 1:3.7 (Moges et al 2010). The proportion of mature hens in a flock is used to estimate egg and chicken production (Yakubu 2010).  

Performance characteristics of family chickens 

The productive and reproductive performances of the native chickens are presented in Table 2. The age at first lay was recorded 5.5(0.6) months, which ranges from 5-8 months. Variations for many of performance parameters was significant among the study districts (P<0.05). This result is similar to the report of Mammo et al (2008) which was 5.3 months but lower than 6.5 months reported by Dessie and Ogle (2001). The length of time it takes a chicken to mature depends mainly on feed availability.

Table 2: Reproductive performance of family chickens in North Gondar zone









Gondar Zuria

Gondar town

Age at sexual maturity (months)








No. of eggs/clutch/hen








No. of clutches/year








Egg incubation size/hen








No. of eggs hatched/hen








Hatchability (%)








No. of chicks weaned








Survivability of chicks at 8wks of age (%)








This study revealed 4.3(0.7) mean clutches and a clutch size of 15.1(2.5) eggs, which is in line with the report of Mammo et al (2008) in Jamma, south Wollo and to the report of Halima et al (2007), 9-19 eggs in North West Ethiopia. Dessie and Ogle (2001) have reported annual production of 55-80 eggs per year in 5-6 clutches of 10-15 eggs. There is a wide range of values reported on the annual egg production size of the indigenous hen. A study at Asela livestock farm showed an average production of 34 eggs/hen/year (Brannang and Persson 1990). A further study in highlands of Ethiopia showed a bit higher production of 17 eggs in the first clutch, 21 in the second and 25 for third and all other clutches with 2.6 clutches being laid per year (Tadelle et al 2003b). In Botswana, 3-4 clutches/year with clutch size of 14-20 eggs were reported (Moreki 2010). Within a clutch, eggs are not laid every day and a 10-egg clutch may be laid in 15-18 days whereas a 15-egg clutch may take 25 days (Wilson 2010). Family hens can stay with the brood for up to 2-3 months, by which time the young growers had separated themselves. The hen then commences to lay another clutch with an average interval of 9.3 weeks (Moreki 2010). There is some evidence that the egg laying period and the number of eggs laid per clutch are higher in urban than in rural areas which may be due to better husbandry in general or to more use of exotic types (Wilson 2010). These low clutch values could be improved upon by mating with superior genes and controlling the brooding practices. Suleiman (1996) has reported average egg production of 177 eggs per year when indigenous chickens were housed in cages under relatively improved management. 

The average egg incubation size/hen was found to be 13.2(1.8) and the range was between 8-16 eggs (Table 2) depending upon the size of indigenous hen. This finding indicates that local broody hens were the only means of egg incubation and brooding young chicks. The mean hatchability and survival rate of chicks to weaning age in this study was 84.6% and 54.2%, respectively. According to Wilson (2010) egg fertility under Ethiopian broody hens was about 55% and hatchability about 75%. Other sources put eggs set as 13.5 per clutch and eggs hatched as 70-81% of those set in the overall range of 44-100% (Dessie and Ogle 2001; Tadelle et al 2003a). Similar hatchability performance result (82%) of local hens was reported by Kusina et al (2000) in Zimbabwe. According to Kitalyi (1998), the differences in hatchability might be attributed to the season of the year, since hatchability of eggs is affected by season of incubation. High chick mortality is characteristic to low productivity of village chickens. It was reported (Dessie and Ogle 2001) that in Ethiopia about 40-60% of the chicks hatched die during the first 8 weeks of life mainly due to disease and predation.  

Purposes of raising family chickens   

The reasons households are raising chickens can be seen in Figure 1. The households were asked to rank the four most important reasons for raising chickens. Four points were given to the most important, three to second, two to the third and one to the fourth. The percentages given are that of points given per category divided by the total number of points. The major reason was for replacement or breeding of stock (36%) and 45.4% eggs for hatching followed by selling of chicken (28.8%) and eggs (33.8%) and for family consumption of chicken (22.7%) and eggs (20.8%).

Figure 1: Purposes of keeping family chicken among households

Our findings are consistent with the report of Moges et al. (2010) who indicated primary reasons of raising chicken were breeding for replacement and sale for income. Tadelle et al (2003b) have also reported that 50% of eggs used to produce replacement birds and 27% sold for income generation while 30.6% of mature birds were kept as replacements and 44.4% were sold for income generation. Women own a large proportion of the birds and cash income is usually kept by them (Dessie and Ogle 2001; Gueye 2002). Poultry meat and eggs are consumed at household level mainly during religious or cultural holidays in the form of ‘doro wat’ which is a very popular spicy chicken and egg stew in Ethiopia.

Housing and feeding management 

In response to questions on where chickens roost, about 92% of the households provided overnight housing for their birds; among which 68.4% share the main house or kitchen while 24.4% construct separated shelter, while some birds (7.2%) perched in wooden materials or stayed overnight on a roof (Table 3). The overnight accommodation was either a complete or partial enclosure made of mud walls and thatched roofs or wooden or wire cages with old corrugated iron sheets. These results are consistent with Moges et al (2010) who reported that only 22.1% of farmers provide separate overnight houses for village chickens. Lack of knowledge and awareness and poor attention to village chicken were some of the reasons for not constructing separate chicken house. Proper housing does not only provide an environment that moderates environmental impact but also provides adequate ventilation for the birds to lay eggs in next boxes, as well as to feed and sleep in comfort and for security purposes (Yakubu 2010)

Almost all households in our study area provided supplementary feeding to their chickens of various ages. Most chicken keepers provided partial supplementary feeding to their chickens two to three times per day and more priority is given to young chicks and layers. Much fewer households provided full supplementation of feed to their chickens. Zero supplementation was also reported by a few households in two districts.

The chicken keepers provided supplementation and drinking water throughout the year depending on the availability of feed commonly before birds leave for scavenging in the morning and in the evening to gather back home. Feedstuffs such maize, wheat, sorghum and household waste products were used as the main sources of chicken feed. This result is consistent with Halima et al (2007) who reported that 99% of farmers in north western part of Ethiopia provided supplementary feed.

In all the study districts, owners provided water for their chickens at different times of the day, mostly ad-libitum and two to three times per day from tap water, river water and other sources. It was mainly the responsibility of mothers and children to feed and offer water as well as to clean the water trough and shelter for the family chickens. Households use locally available watering troughs such as broken clays, plastic and wooden made troughs.

Table 3: Housing and feeding management of indigenous chickens in North Gondar Zone









Gondar Zuria


Gondar town








Share main house






Separated shelter






Perch outside






Feed supplementation






Full supplementation






Partial supplementation






Zero supplementation






Season of supplementation





Dry season only






Wet season only






Dry and wet season







The marketing chain is almost completely informal in family poultry. Both chicken and eggs are sold off the farm direct to a final consumer or to a local middle trader through a local market in both rural and urban areas. Some 42% of live sales are made between farmer and consumer, and 39% from farmer to trader. Traders most often collect birds from primary markets at district and sub-district towns and carry to market centers mainly in Gondar town where they change hands again to the final retail point of sale. Gondar town, Mikadra and Metema (Ethio-Sudan border towns) are terminal markets where birds collected from district centers are sold. About 30 fulltime and par-time chicken traders are involved in Gondar town and nearby districts. They purchase 40-100 birds per month/trader in 3 to 4 rounds. Birds are transported by bus and trucks with and without crates tied on top with bags and sacks of grains frequently exposed to accidents and deaths.   

Households attempt to produce more birds that can be sold at festival time to command high prices but, conversely, forced sales at periods of high disease risk or actual disease cause prices to fall. The chicken farmers determine the price of chicken by weight, sex and plumage color. Chicken owners sale birds when they are in need of cash and when birds are sick. Consumers overwhelmingly prefer local to exotic birds and eggs. The premium for local birds is attributed to better meat flavor and more deeply colored egg yolks (Dessie and Ogle 2001; Wilson 2010). 

Causes of poultry mortality and losses

Small-scale family chicken production in the study area was characterized by high mortality (Figure 2).  The study households were asked to rank the three most important reasons for the death of their chickens. Three points were given to the most important, two to the second and one to the third. The percentages given are that of points given per category divided by the total number of points. For the t-test all the ranking points for each reason for the death of chicken were added together and divided by the number of people from each category. These means were then compared for significance. The main reason for the death of village chickens was disease followed by predators and other causes such as poisons, theft, and poor nutrition.

Figure 2: Major causes of chicken mortality and loss among households

Poultry diseases were the major and economically important constraint of family chicken production in the study region. According to Dessie and Ogle (2001), about 40-60% of the chicks die during the first 8 weeks of life mainly as a result of disease and predation. Predators were also noted to be a threat to family chicken production. Gueye (2002) also reported that mortality of backyard chicken was high and could reach up to 53% until four weeks of age in tropical Africa.  

During the dry season, the problem of predators was twofold. First, the shortage of natural foods for predators force them to forage as close to the homesteads as possible. Second, the vegetation cover declines substantially during the dry season. This leaves chickens, especially chicks, exposed to airborne predators such as hawks and eagle. Good vegetation cover during the wet season provides some form of protection for poultry against flying predators. However, some predators like wild cats are problem during wet season.  Snakes and dogs have also been identified as contributing to poultry losses. 

Newcastle disease and control 

Newcastle disease (ND) is well known by most chicken keeping farmers. It was presented as the major cause of poultry loss by most of the owners that wipes out the whole flock when there is an outbreak. This situation prevails in many parts of Ethiopia (Zeleke et al 2005; Serkalem et al 2005; Ashenafi 2000) on rural poultry, which supports the argument that ND is the most devastating disease of village chickens.  Farmers are well aware of the virulence of ND, in chickens; the disease frequently leaves no survivors in unvaccinated flocks. Farmers can even predict the period in which it generally occurs, although they do not usually know the causes of the disease.  

Thirty-nine percent of the farmers confirmed that their poultry flocks had been affected by ND in the last 3 years. The extents of poultry losses from the ND outbreaks were variable. Fifty-five percent of households indicated losses exceeding 50% of the flock. It was noted that the majority of the farmers (80%) were familiar with the signs of the disease. Some of the signs described by the farmers were sneezing, swelling of the neck and head, greenish diarrhoea, sudden death with no clinical signs, and unable to walk and feed.  

Typically, there is an annual passage of ND in rural poultry, and the survivors have a high level of antibodies, which are initially passed on to the next generation in the form of maternal antibodies. These gradually decline, and at the next viral challenge the antibody levels of those with some antibodies are boosted, whereas those with no protection succumb, and so the cycle is repeated every one or two years (Gueye 2002). The local live bird markets where huge numbers of chickens are gathered might also serve as continuous foci of infection. 

Seasonal patterns of Newcastle disease 

The extent and severity of losses due to ND were reported to be seasonal (Figure 3) with the greatest magnitude of losses (58.4%) occurring during the hot, rainy season (April to June) followed by 20.8% in hot dry season (November to March). The occurrence of ND and mortality of chicken dropped during the wet season (July to October). Mortality difference was significant (P<0.05) among seasons. The farmers associate the occurrence of ND outbreaks and high mortality of birds to the effects of warm moisture to the disease, high movement of chicken for sale during festivals and religious ceremonies, and inadequate nutrition for the birds.

Figure 3: Pattern of seasonal losses of family chicken

Response of farmers to disease outbreaks 

Fifty percent of owners respond by treating chicken using different home remedies, purchased drugs from drug vendors and veterinary clinics (Figure 4). Fifty seven percent respondents stated as they expend a certain amount of money to purchase veterinary products. However, they complained about the efficacy of drugs as mortality would never cease. A number of farmers reacted by slaughtering as a fear of the loss due to mass mortality or selling to the nearby markets, which may as well contribute to the spread of ND and other infectious diseases.

Figure 4: Response of households to disease outbreaks

It was also noted that households were aware of how the disease was transmitted to their flocks, for instance, introduction of new birds into their flocks through purchasing of birds for breeding from other places. This observation is supported by evidence from Alexander (2004) who reported that the main form of transmission of ND was through bird-to-bird contact. Sick chickens and their contacts are disposed of through markets or are slaughtered for consumption. Disposal of dead chickens is indiscriminate and this leads to rapid spread of ND in villages. 

Knowledge of medication and vaccination 

Farmers were asked to disclose means of treating ND. Their responses were that they did not have a treatment regime specific for ND but rather for most poultry diseases. Some of these local or traditional methods of treatment were mixing of various home remedies with drinking water. The dosages of these types of treatments are not controlled and their effectiveness still remains debatable. Very occasionally owners treat their chicken using antibiotics originally intended for human use. Village poultry keeping farmers tend to start dealing with disease control once the symptoms appear in their flocks. They therefore treat symptoms instead of diseases and link specific therapeutic preparations to specific disease symptoms (Gueye 2002).  

Farmers were also asked to express their knowledge about poultry vaccines. None of the respondents have ever experienced their birds vaccinated against ND, 74% due to absence of vaccines, 25.4% due to lack of awareness about the presence of chicken vaccines in veterinary clinics, and 0.5% due to poor attention to village birds. All respondents stated that they have never been trained in poultry production and health management, indicating that family poultry does not receive strong veterinary service or extension support in the study districts. 

It is however difficult to organize regular vaccination campaigns covering free-range birds, and the main constraints are related to the characteristics of the husbandry systems practised i.e. small flock sizes, multi-age birds, scattered flocks over a vast area, etc. Moreover, conventional vaccines are not available either in small-doses or in small-lot ampoules and the cold storages are not available in rural veterinary clinics. 



The authors duly acknowledge farmers that participated in individual interview and focus group discussion for sharing their knowledge. The study cost of this project was covered by Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.


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Received 9 August 2013; Accepted 10 August 2013; Published 4 September 2013

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