Science - June 17, 2010

Breeding indigenous and more productive chickens

Ethiopian villagers favour white or red chickens which are both meaty and good for laying eggs. Nigussie Mullu has started a breeding programme to meet these goals.

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Chickens play a vital role in most Ethiopian villages, says Nigussie, a researcher at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research. They are often the only source of income for village women. 'If we can raise chicken production, we will improve the life of the local citizens'.
Free range
The government of Ethiopia has tried to raise production by importing highly productive chicken breeds from abroad, but without success. The modern breeds could not adapt to the local environment and died from diseases or predators such as cats and foxes. 'The chickens live in a free range system. They have to scratch out a living.'
The local breeds in the villages are used to the local situation. Therefore, efforts to increase production should be based on this production environment and the preferences of the villagers, says Nigussie, who holds a PhD position in Wageningen. He talked to small-scale chicken farmers in many districts in Ethiopia. The preferences of village poultry producers are discussed in the last issue of Tropical Animal Health and Production.
Diversity
'The villagers don't want specialized breeds', says Nigussie. 'They want chickens which can provide both meat and eggs.' The villagers in the north of Ethiopia prefer white chicken, while poultry producers in other parts of the country prefer red or brown ones. There are many local chicken varieties in the villages. 'We cannot classify them as a particular breed, so we have to bring them together and make a breed out of them.'
DNA analysis
Nigussie has carried out genetic analysis at his institute to discern the diversity and determine the genetic parameters for selecting chickens based on meat and egg production. In particular, he is establishing the genetic links among these traits. The breeding and selection programme at his institute will last another five years. A new programme will start this year to bring this breeding process to the farmers in de villages. 'We want to give the villagers a breed that produces more meat and eggs and which fits in with their production environment', says Nigussie. 'My PhD research will become a benchmark of the present situation, and show how to go from here to improve local chicken productivity.' 
Team
Nigussie is head of the chicken research group of the Institute in Debre Zeit in Ethiopia. His chicken research team consists of two veterinarians, one physiologist, two nutritionists and two animal production scientists. His PhD study is financed by a research development fund from NWO-Wotro in the Netherlands. He will complete his study in September.   

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