A Guide to Backyard Poultry Farming for Sustainable Livelihoods

Backyard Poultry Farming is the most sustainable and profitable source for small farms. Backyard poultry can be reared for egg production in small numbers (10-20) under free range conditions if optimum natural feed resources are available.

However, if the local demand is for meat, birds can be reared in larger numbers under intensive/semi- intensive conditions by providing inputs similar to those given to commercial broilers.

The Backyard poultry farming has more advantages than factory farms.

  • A source of employment to small and marginal farmers, including women and unemployed youth.
  • Provides additional income.
  • Enhances soil fertility (15 chickens produce 1-1.2 kg of manure/day).
  • Products fetch a higher price compared to those from commercial poultry farming.
  • Egg and meat with low investment.
  • Helps control ecto-parasites in domestic animals.
  • Eggs and meat contain low levels of cholesterol and saturated fats and high levels of vitamin compared to meat from commercial poultry.
  • Accessible source of nutrition for families

The improved layer varieties have the potential to produce 140-170 eggs in a laying year under free range conditions and 160-200 eggs under organized farm conditions. The birds weigh on average 2.5-3.5 kg in males and 1.5-2.0 kg in females.

A Guide to Backyard Poultry Farming

1. Brooding/Nursery management (up to six weeks)

Brooding care of chicks ensures constant body temperature and protection from predators.

  • The brooder house floor must have a uniform 1-2 inch spread of clean litter like sawdust, paddy husk, rice husk, coconut husk, etc.
  • Litter absorbs moisture from poultry droppings and provides warmth in winter and coolness in summer.
  • Rake the litter frequently and treat it with slaked lime to avoid caking. Remove moist litter and replace it with fresh litter.
  • Spread newspapers on the litter to prevent chicks from feeding on it till they are accustomed to differentiate litter from feed.
  • Rear the chicks on standard chick starter ration.
  • Brooding can be natural or artificial; the former involves a broody hen and the latter may involve heat sources, reflectors, electric bulbs, etc.
  • Secure the brooding area with a brooder guard/ chick guard made of cardboard sheet, GI sheet, wire mesh, mats, etc to restrict bird movement close to the heat source.

2. Managing adult birds after six weeks

  • Let the birds free to forage/scavenge during the day; provide them shelter during night.
  • Provide clean drinking water before letting them out.
  • The preferred flock size is 12-15 birds per household depending on the area and natural food available.
  • Extra roosters can be reared separately and marketed for meat.
  • Night shelters should be well ventilated, have adequate light and protection from predators.
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3. The ideal night shelter

  • Protects from the weather
  • Protects from predators
  • Spacious to enable movement
  • Adequate ventilation
  • A clean environment
  • Helps in converting poultry litter into manure
  • Reduces disease risk

4. Constructing a night shelter

  • Use low cost and locally available materials like bamboo, wooden planks, polythene sheets, etc.
  • Build the shelter in a well-drained area a few inches above the ground to avoid dampness. Provide adequate space per bird and avoid overcrowding.
  • For laying hens, dark, raised secure nests with clean nesting material should be available. Nests can be in the fenced area or in the shelter itself.
  • Hens lay more eggs if adequate artificial light is available.
  • Check for loose or projecting wires, nails, or sharp objects to avoid injuries.
  • Should be comfortable, stress free with optimum temperature, fresh air and sufficient light.
  • Dimensions for a 10-bird night shelter: 4 ft long x 3 ft wide x 3.5 ft high and 1.5-2 ft above the ground, with a slope 3.5 ft to 2.5 ft.
  • Drinker (waterer) and feeder must be in the front with nests or baskets at a back corner of the shelter.
Space requirements for chickens.
Age (weeks)Floor space (sq. ft)Feeding space (cm)Watering space (cm)
0-40.52.51.5
4-81.05.02.0
8-122.06.52.5

5. Feed management

  • Should be reared on standard chick starter ration during the initial six weeks under nursery rearing or brooding.
  • In the second growing stage, besides the feed material available in free range, provide natural food or greens like waste grains, germinated seeds, mulberry leaves, azolla, drumstick leaves and subabul leaves (high protein sources).
  • Extra feed will depend on the free range available, intensity of vegetation, availability of waste grains, insects, etc.
  • Under free range conditions, the birds meet their protein requirements through scavenging, but the risk of energy deficiency is common. Feeding with locally available cereals like maize, sorghum, pearl millet, broken rice with equal parts of polished rice or rice bran is essential. However, the nutrient intake of scavenging birds varies with place and season, crops grown and the natural vegetation available.
  • Restrict feed at six months of age (age of sexual maturity in layers) to control the weight of the birds.
  • During the rainy season and harvest time, worms, insects and post-harvest leftovers will be plenty for the birds to feed on.
  • Duringthedryseasonofscarcity,feedsupplements, including household waste (kitchen leftovers)and oilseed cakes have a positive effect on egg production and body weight of scavenging birds.
  • A handful of grains or kitchen waste in the morning and evening can be given to supplement scavenging.
  • The scavenging feed base is very important for propagation of backyard birds. Soil type and cropping systems dominated by wheat, maize, rice, sugarcane and finger millet make up supplementary feed base.
  • Supplemental calcium sources like limestone powder, stone grit and shell grit at 4-5 gms per bird daily, especially during the laying phase, leads to a high rate of survival and good egg production.
  • Any feed of grain or household scrap should be given inside the shelter. When regularly provided in the evening, it will help train the birds to willingly enter the enclosure before nightfall.
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A locally available feed formulation includes:

  1. 50% cereals (maize, sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet, broken rice)
  2. 28% bran (rice bran, wheat bran, deoiled rice bran)
  3. 20% meal/oil cakes (soybean meal, groundnut meal, sunflower meal, linseed cake, etc.)
  4. 2% additives (vitamin and mineral mixture).

6. Importance of fresh drinking water

  • Access to fresh, clean and cool water at all times of the day is a must.
  • If birds are not provided water for two days,
    they will cease producing eggs and the birds will start moulting, during which the reproductive physiology of the bird is allowed a complete rest from laying. The bird builds up its body reserves of nutrients and requires at least 10-15 days to restart egg laying.
  • A bird can drink twice as much water as its weight as it eats feed. A simple trough, floor-based waterers or hanging waterers can be used.

7. Breeding management

  • A rooster can service six to eight hens to obtain fertile eggs.
  • Collect fertile eggs from the nest regularly and store them in a cool and well-ventilated place.
  • Place 10-12 eggs under a brooding hen within two weeks of egg collection for higher hatchability.
  • Rural hatcheries can be set up using a community- based approach for improved hatchability under field conditions.

8. Health care

  • Vaccinate birds against Marek’s disease, Newcastle disease (Ranikhet disease), fowl pox, etc. for greater immunity.
  • Deworm birds regularly to protect from internal parasites due to their scavenging nature.
  • While debeaking is discouraged in rural poultry given that the birds need to forage and scavenge, it is recommended if the farmer is rearing about 80- 100 or more birds to avoid cannibalism, egg biting, feather pecking, etc.
  • After the first deworming, repeat at three-week intervals for a total of four deworming sessions.
  • While medicating via drinking water, follow the veterinarian’s advice on the amount of medicine to be mixed in the water that chicks normally consume in four hours (approximately 6 litres for 100 birds per day, at six weeks).
  • Provide extra water only when all the medicated water is consumed.
  • Dust and dip the birds or fumigate the house at the slightest indication of external/ecto-parasites.
  • Take care not to dip the head and avoid dipping on rainy days.
  • Strictly follow the instructions of veterinarians and manufacturers to avoid health hazards.
  • Avoid rearing different species of poultry together (chicken with ducks, turkeys etc.). Separate young and adult stock.
  • Maintain hygiene in poultry houses and keep equipment clean. Ensure proper disposal of dead birds. Prevent entry of rodents. Though biosecurity is cost intensive, it pays in the long run in terms
    of fewer losses from infection and good quality production. Periodical culling is advised to control the spread of diseases.
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9. Record keeping

How do you monitor the performance of individual birds? Some basic record keeping is essential.

  • This is easy to follow as each hen lays eggs in separate nests and the number of birds reared in backyards is generally small.
  • Tracking each hen’s egg laying capacity and hatching performance helps in choosing hens to produce the next generation.
  • Recording expenses, production and sales provides insights into the economics of backyard poultry farming.
  • Record keeping of egg production also helps farmers identify underperforming/best performing birds to either cull/breed them to enhance production.
  • Information on vaccination and deworming may also be recorded.

10. Debeaking and deworming schedule

31-42 days – First debeaking

42-50 days – First deworming (may be done earlier if worms are noticed)

13-16 weeks – Second debeaking and second deworming

Continue deworming – once in three months or as per requirement

Preferring Indigenous birds for backyard poultry is the primary choice for every farmer. It has huge bonus over other factory breeds.

What sets indigenous birds apart?

  • Superior adaptability to their habitat and ability to survive, can reproduce with low nutrition under sub-optimal management.
  • Require fewer inputs as they scavenge and are raised with little veterinary care.
  • Exhibit broodiness and hatch their own chicks.
  • Their eggs and meat are preferred and fetch a premium price compared to commercial farm-bred chickens.
  • Can protect themselves from predators.
  • A reservoir of superior genes.
  • Act as insurance for the poor during difficult times.

Limitations of indigenous backyard poultry

  • Slow growth
  • Low body weight
  • Late sexual maturity
  • Low clutch size thus, low egg production
  • Small egg size
  • Prolonged broodiness

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