Cages in chicken farming: The rows upon rows of red-to-tan birds furiously peck their marsh dishes, creating a symphony which is only disrupted, now and again, by a cacophony of clucking.
The birds occasionally tilt a small metallic knob above the feeding trough using their reddish-brown beaks and water trickles from the pipes into a small dish. Water only trickles when the knob is touched and the birds have learnt so.
It is a hot afternoon and workers are seen collecting eggs with minimal disturbance to the hens. The floor of the cages is slightly inclined, with narrow vertical opening at the front side such that when the hens lay eggs on the floor of the cages, they roll out and only stop at a raised end.
Welcome to Reuben Chirchir’s poultry empire, which he has been building for the last three and-a-half years.
He is now uprooting a section of tea bushes at his Chebang’ang, Bomet County home to create way for a lorry that will be collecting eggs at his chicken farm gate.
“Egg production from my 8,600 chickens has doubled since I moved them from deep litter to the caging system,” Chirchir, an accountant at a government institution, says.
The birds are kept in twos inside each cube of long running cages arranged in rows. Each of the ladder-like cages holds a total of 120 chickens in lower, middle and upper storeys.
Eggs are collected after feeding in the morning and in the evening.
Chirchir and his three workers collect 128 trays that carry 30 eggs each daily, which amounts to an average of 3,500 in total, which are supplied to hotels in various destinations using a family pick-up.
Every Friday, about 800 trays are transported to Nairobi, 200 trays to Litein on Wednesdays while 350 trays are sent to Narok on Mondays.
Though the operations at the farm may now seem perfect, Chirchir says it was not always easy.
He began rearing chickens in August 2012. “As an entrepreneur, I dared to buy 2,000 chicks, despite having no experience in the industry,” Chirchir told us.
The high cost of feeds, getting committed and trained personnel are some of the challenges he has braved.
“Many people lack expertise to manage large numbers of delicate chicks. I engaged an expert from Parksons Agrovet in Kericho, who gave me the basics of caring for the chicks and was very supportive in the subsequent journey,” he says.
Then his chicken fell victim to diarrhoea and loss of feathers, making them less productive. He spent a lot of money on treatment.
After an extensive reading of books and research on the internet, the beleaguered farmer learnt of the caging system which is preferred because it is hygienic, comfortable and safe to birds. It is also efficient as it is cheaper and takes a high number of birds in a little space.
Armed with a bank loan and savings, he made an initial order of 42 cages from China last October, which were delivered two months later.
“When I saw the prices, I knew it was not easy but I was passionate to adopt the system. It cost me Sh40,000 to buy and ship each cage,” says the 41-year-old farmer.
Another problem arose when the cages arrived with manuals written in Chinese, making it difficult to assemble the parts.
“We did a lot of trial and error with a local fundi but the design would not come together well. I called in different people, all in vain,” he said.
It was only when they followed the pictorials that they managed to install them.
In March this year, another 84 cages were brought in, bringing the total to 126. He says the management of cages was much easier than the deep litter system, which he says exposes chicken to disease.
Instead of using water troughs that can be unhygienic, water is supplied by automatic pumps that only allow water to trickle down when pecked by chickens.
“I can easily account for every chicken and know which one is laying eggs so that those that have stopped laying are sold off,” he said.
High standards of hygiene are maintained at the farm. The gates are locked and visitors have to disinfect their feet before entering the poultry grounds while the houses are disinfected every month.
Chicken are vaccinated from when they are young and therefore are free from many diseases According to David Rotich, an animal health technician and artificial insemination expert for Parksons Agrovet in Kericho, the deep litter system is unsuitable because it exposes birds to itchiness that de-feathers them and coccidiosis that causes diarhoea.
De-feathering, he explained, is as a result of small mites that hide in the dusty floors of the deep litter systems and feed on chicken at night.
“The chicken will scratch and end up losing feathers. But the worst is coccidiosis, where waste comes out with blood stains. It affects the feeding system of chicken and lowers the production of eggs,” Rotich said.
He said cages also reduce cannibalism and increase productivity. Chirchir said he chose to keep Rhode Island breed because they lay eggs longer and do not grow old early.
To ensure continuity, the farm brings in 1,000 chicks every month.
“I am targeting 21,000 chickens by the end of the year. That is why I am making way for the lorry because after the increase, the eggs will no longer fit into the pick-up,” he said.
Currently, his chickens feed on 14 bags of 50kg marsh every day, with each going for Sh2,300. An attempt by Chirchir to use mixers to prepare his own feed and cut costs proved disastrous when workers failed to produce the right ratio of feeds for the chickens which led to reduced production of eggs by 30 per cent.
An attempt by Chirchir to use mixers to prepare his own feed and cut costs proved disastrous when workers failed to produce the right ratio of feeds for the chickens which led to reduced production of eggs by 30 per cent.
They were to strictly measure various amounts of a total of 14 ingredients, among them lysine (6kgs) and lime cement (20.8 kgs) both for egg-shell hardening, bone meal (6kgs), cotton cake (3.8 kgs) maize meal (78 kgs) and wheat pollard (28.6kgs).
“With the kind of set up in cages, we don’t need a lot of staff. However, two interns from Egerton University will report to the farm next week for two months,” said Chirchir.
The cage system has helped Mr Chirchir take up more birds than would have been possible under the deep litter system.
“With my half-acre, I would have kept a maximum of 2,000 chicken. Now I have four times that in the same space.
Sophie Miyumo, a poultry scientist with a smallholder indigenous chicken improvement programme, says the cage system is economical because some cubes extend upwards, allowing more room for birds.
“It is recommended that the deep litter system takes up four to six birds per metre square whereas in caging, each cube takes up a maximum of four birds, providing floor area of 450 to 525 square centimetres per bird. This makes it ideal for urban areas where land is scarce. “ says Sophie.
The Egerton University lecturers, however, advise that caging is more suitable for layers, and not broilers or indigenous chicken which tend to grow too big for the cubicles in the cages.
The following feature was first published in Seeds of Gold