Chicken farming: through the eyes of a ViParc community advisory board member
Ho Chi Minh City, 14 August 2017 – With less than two years’ experience in chicken husbandry, Nguyen Van Cuong considers serving on a community advisory board as a way to gain new farming knowledge. His insights, however, are great learning for scientists from ViParc, a research project on chicken production and antibiotics in the Mekong Delta that he is advising.
This article results from ViParc’s conversation with Mr. Cuong, 36, at his Dong Thap home on 11 August 2017.
Not rocket science, but an art for the hard-working
Mr. Cuong has never received formal training on chicken farming. It is not rocket science, he thinks, but an art only hard-working people can do. “I rarely let anyone else in my family take care of the chickens because they don’t know my flock as well as I do,” he says.
His chicken house is intentionally built under a number of coconut trees, which help cool down the birds during the hot seasons. He covers its floor with, as some neighbors taught him, a combination of rice husks, bran and absorbent powder. Chopping up banana stems and other greens for a special meal is what Mr. Cuong has to do on a regular basis, since “commercial feed alone would make the final chicken meat way too tender.”
Every morning, he feeds the birds and observes them for 1-2 hours. It is a happy time if they just eat, play and move around. But any morning with disease symptoms is a headache for him. “Mortality had always been over 20 percent during the first cycles. Last time I had only 10 chickens die,” he beams.
This means while Mr. Cuong raised the latest flock of 300 birds, only 10 died (a mortality of 3.3 percent), which he attributes to luck.
With almost all of the flock sold, his farm is left with three hens. Nestled down a small alley in Cao Lanh district, the farm now also hosts seven Muscovy ducks and one goose, the last of which Mr. Cuong calls “the best housekeeper.”
A farmer-vet relationship
The veterinary team in his commune of My Tho has only three people, so farmer-vet relationships in this area are quite close. Nguyen Quoc Trung, 31, is his go-to vet.
“I woke up and saw one or two dead chickens. I immediately took one to Mr. Trung for diagnosis,” Mr. Cuong says of the 6th week of his last flock.
He did not know much about diseases then, but recognized that many were sick because “they looked different. I was sure about it – I’d been watching them every morning,” he recalls.
After conducting a post-mortem, Mr. Trung found the chicken’s spleen to be shrunken and liver mottled with tiny looking blood spots (called petechiae). He concluded there was Inclusion Body Hepatitis (IBH) among the flock.
“I bought some medicine and treated the entire flock. I gave the very sick-looking chickens a high dose, and the healthy ones a low dose for the sake of disease prevention,” Mr. Cuong says.
But what he calls “medicine” was only vitamins to help with the recovery process, according to Mr. Trung. “At the moment we don’t have any vaccine or effective treatment for IBH. IBH has emerged in our commune the past two years, the average mortality of which is up to 30 percent.”
He cautions that it only comes from post-mortem lesions. My Tho communes has approximately 50 chicken farms, all of which are of a household scale and cannot afford lab tests.
The case with Mr. Cuong’s farm fared well because “he trusted me and came to me early,” Mr. Trung notes. “I’ve encountered numerous cases where farmers don’t want to tell me fully which treatments they’ve taken or simply don’t remember the flocks’ medical histories. When that happens, it’s much harder to save the chickens.”
Output market and the not-so-superstitious dimension of chicken farming
The profit Mr. Cuong made from the last flock was VND3 million. “The trader came and paid VND65,000/kg. It used to sell much better,” Mr. Cuong says.
He holds an uncertain view on output markets, which account for a bigger problem because even for the tough issue of chicken diseases, he can rely on close associates such as Mr. Trung.
Asked why he does not negotiate a contract where a trader will come at an agreed-upon time and buy all his meat chickens at a fixed price, Mr. Cuong gives a shy response, “This may sound superstitious. But as a livestock farmer, I should believe it [luck]. If the contract says the trader will come buy my chickens on such and such date and yet they still weigh less than what was promised, the trader may make comments [on my flock].” Such comments, regardless of whether they mean praise or criticism, are considered bad luck, at least among Mr. Cuong and his fellow farmers.
This explains why Mr. Cuong prefers waiting until his chickens reach 1.2-1.7kg each, the weight considered ideal by most traders, to start finding a potential buyer. “The challenge then becomes I’ll have a very narrow window of time. If I don’t sell quick enough, I might risk not selling any chickens at all. When they stay on the farm, they’ll gain weight. And traders don’t like too-fat chickens.”
Time at home
Despite the many challenges of chicken farming, Mr. Cuong is sure that he will start another cycle in late September or early October this year.
“It gives me time to stay home,” he contends.
If he did not raise chickens in his backyard and instead hired himself out in the neighborhood, he could earn as much as VND4 million a month. “The last flock took me four months and I earned VND3 million altogether. A lower than low return on investment!”
But Mr. Cuong appreciates how raising birds has afforded him the luxury to stay home so he can look after his own rice field, which happens to be right behind his house, and spend time with his family while still earning some extra cash.
“My two children are my biggest joy,” he says, not forgetting to emphasize that they help him out with the flocks but he never lets them work too much.