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Hybrid layers on free range in southwest Zambia



H. De Vries

The author was Project Adviser at Masese, Zambia, from 1987 to 1991. His present address is: S. N. V. Nicaragua, PO Box 20061, 2500 EB The Hague, the Netherlands.

Masese is an area in the southern part of the Western Province of Zambia. Average rainfall is 710 mm per year and the wet season is from November to March. Maize is the main staple food and it is eaten in combination with sour milk, vegetables, groundnuts and meat. The consumption of animal proteins - the main source of which is milk - as well as plant proteins and vegetables, is very low, especially during the dry season. During the rainy season, 52 percent of the households consume milk every day; the percentage is far less in the dry season. Sixty percent of the households own cattle, and the sale of cattle is the main source of cash income.

The vegetation of the area consists of woodlands intersected by grasslands in the plains that vary in width from 800 m to 2 km when entering the Zambezi flood plain. People live along the river plains.

Of the total number of households in Masese, 67 percent keep local chickens for meat production, cash income and for use in ceremonies. Management level is low, chickens are kept on free range and inputs are almost none. Although a daily egg supply could be a welcome contribution to the diet, eggs are rarely eaten. Egg production of local chickens is limited as they are destined for reproduction.

Keeping chickens by rural and even urban poor with few inputs is almost universal, and although the system provides some meat and cash on a casual basis, the economic output is low. Some studies on keeping local chickens are known; however, few reports on the improvement of this system have been published, probably because of the low expected return on the activities as well as the organizational difficulties.

Most "improved" systems for chicken meat and egg production immediately jump to large-scale controlled rearing in pens with balanced feeds, which require substantial financial and technical inputs.

Increasing meat production of local chickens, and therefore cash income, with slightly improved management (supplementary feeding and controlled raising during the first weeks) and an organized Newcastle disease-control campaign should be possible and could benefit rural households economically. This will still not provide a daily supply of animal protein, however, as eggs would. Would it not be possible to produce eggs locally?

1 Production and supplement per egg per group of layers - Production et supplémentation par œuf et par groupe de pondeuses - Producción y suplementación alimentaria por huevo y por grupo de ponedoras

Group I

Group II
(16% crude protein)

Group III
(25% crude protein)


Monthly production per living layer





Annual production per started layer





Supplement per egg (g)





2 Cost price of one egg (March 1990)1 - Prix de revient d'un œuf (mars 1990) - Precio de costo por huevo (marzo de 1990)

Group I

Group II
(16% crude protein)

Extra price for a layer, being

K100 - K60 (meat value) = K40, over:

123 eggs


174 eggs


Supplement 135 g of maize at K2 per kg


93 g of layers mash at K7 per kg


Miscellaneous (limestone flour, etc.)






1 In March 1990, 40 Zambian kwachas (K) = 1 United States dollar.

No experiences of keeping hybrid layers on free range, such as local chickens, have been reported. This document, however, gives a brief account of some experiences with the introduction of hybrid layers to farmers' households in Masese.

The system is a very simple one. The hybrid layers are kept in a pen at night and let out during the day to forage for food Their diets are supplemented with locally available grains such as maize and sorghum and they receive maize bran, beer residue and sometimes sunflower seed as well. They pick a few beans and groundnuts, insects such as termites and ants, and green material. Food leftovers, generally only maize meal, can also be fed to the layers. The family must supply a source of calcium as the calcium content of feed is not high enough to cover requirements. Possible sources of calcium are lime, oyster shell and eggshell. In Masese limestone flour is used.

Layers have to be bought. In towns, people are often able to buy pullets ready for laying. In Masese, a locally organized cooperative with mainly emergent farmers and officers as members has started to make layers available. About 1500 to 2000 day-old chicks arrive from Lusaka by plane and/or by car. A farmer raises 50 to 100 day-old chicks - in this case Harco-sex-link crosses (Barred Rock female x Rhode Island Red male) - in a pen made of local material, giving them balanced feeds for four months, after which they are sold. During this period they are vaccinated against Newcastle disease and treated for coccidiosis. This regimen is feasible in this climate, when the cold season is avoided.

Producing eggs from layers on free range was proved to be possible in a pilot trial in Mozambique (180 eggs per started layer, 101 g of 16 percent layers mash per egg)and in an experiment performed in Masese with 21 farmers, each receiving ten layers, in October 1987. The Masese farmers were divided randomly into three groups of seven. In the experiment in Mozambique, it was found that the gizzards of some of the layers had a high protein content, while others had a low protein level. For this reason, the following treatments were introduced in the Masese experiment:

· Group I: supplement of 50 g of maize per chicken per day (9 percent crude protein). The need for calcium was covered by the addition of limestone flour, measured with a teaspoon.

· Group II: supplement of 50 g of layers mash per chicken per day (16 percent crude protein). The level of calcium increased to 5 percent.

· Group III: supplement of 50 g of high-protein layers mash per chicken per day (25 percent crude protein). The level of calcium increased to 5 percent.

The farmers received the supplements once a month, the daily quantities of which were measured with a cup. Egg production was recorded daily.

The results of the experiment carried out in Masese over 12 months are shown in Table 1.

Group II showed the best results, with 174 eggs per started layer and only 93 g of supplement needed for the production of one egg. Statistical analysis, however, shows no significant difference between the groups. The production of Group II appears to correspond very well with the results from Mozambique. The production of Group I corresponds with a later experience in 1988/89 with sorghum and 12.5 percent pounded sunflower, when 141 eggs per started layer were produced over a 13-month period. The best farmer (Group II) achieved a production of 220 eggs per started layer.

No calculation was made for the use of 25 percent supplement since supplementing with 25 percent layers mash is not practical and would result in a higher cost price than that of 16 percent layers mash.

Table 2 demonstrates that in this system, when the cost price is considered, supplementation with maize gives good results. Although production of Group I is lower and less efficient in quantity of supplement per egg, it is cheaper and easier than supplementation with layers mash. The selling price per egg in March 1990 varied from 2.50 to 3 Zambian kwachas (K). (In March 1990, K40 = US$1.) Compared with the cost price of K0.70, there is little risk for a family keeping layers, as was shown under this system.

The quantity of supplement to be given is related to the availability of scratch. This depends on many factors, of course, such as vegetation, season, quantity of kitchen leftovers and number of chickens. Sometimes, especially in Group I, it appeared that the layers were too fat, probably because, in addition to the supplement, the farmers were feeding the layers too much extra maize or maize meal leftovers. Including a bulky product such as maize bran in the supplement could discourage over-consumption.

It also appeared that, even with the 50 g of supplement given in this experiment, the production levels of several farmers seriously dropped for four to six weeks, after which they began to increase again. This could be the result of a shortage of feed.

An analysis of the experiments suggests that a supplement of more than 50 g a day per layer would give better results.

It would also appear that good (local) management is equally important since, independent of the quality of the supplement, some families achieved far better production results and lower mortality rates than others. In fact, their layers continued to produce even into the second year. Better management probably means a secured source of calcium. Later experiences showed that this was the main explanation for the difference between Group I and Group II. Recently published literature on the protein content of scratch indicates that any grain is a balancing supplement. As calcium was mixed in the 16 percent layers mash of Group II but had to be added to the maize by the farmers in Group I, the difference in production may be the result of this difference in management.

The mortality rate was 30 percent; however, in Masese, a dead chicken is always used for food. It was not possible to determine all causes of death. Besides predators, such as snakes and eagles, there were reports of diarrhoea, respiratory diseases, etc. An inventory of the most common diseases and pests in this system must be taken.

Free-range layers - Poules pondeuses en liberté - Gallinas ponedoras sueltas

Local hen-house protected against predators - Poulailler à l'abri des prédateurs - Gallinero protegido contra depredadores

Several people have started to keep layers on free range; however, they include mainly officers, emergent farmers and people who kept some of the day-old chicks, which they raise themselves.

There appears to be interest in buying layers, but financing is a prohibiting factor. In Masese, the initial investment at present for ten layers at K90 per layer is K900, which is equivalent to one month's salary.

It is the women who are responsible for the care of chickens in Masese, but it is mostly the men who invest money in buying layers. Egg production benefits the whole family when the decision to eat the eggs has been made. Eggs are also sold, since other sources of cash income are few. Cash from egg sales can be spent on household necessities by the woman, especially when money is scarce. Normally, as soon as the amount increases, the men will claim a large part of it. The risk of this happening is low in the system described above, because the number of layers that can be kept in this system is limited. Some families keep up to 15 layers, but six to ten are more common.

Keeping layers on free range as described above should be possible in a wide range of environments, from urban places with reasonable gardens to rural areas. They can probably be kept in many, if not all, of the places where local chickens prosper. As in every system with external inputs, the procurement of these can cause problems. Whether these problems can be solved and whether the system will prove to be sustainable depends on the ease of the input supply and/or on the strength of the organized farmers.


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De Vries, H. 1986. Experiences with layers in the family sector. Internal paper. Mozambique, Ministry of Agriculture.

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