Livestock Research for Rural Development 30 (4) 2018 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

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Key criteria and models for implementing a sustainable chicken breeding and distribution program for smallholder poultry producers

Kelly R Wilson1,2, Terra R Kelly1,3, David Bunn1,4 and Huaijun Zhou1,4

1 Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry, University of California, Davis, CA 95616 USA
2 Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210, USA
3 One Health Institute, University of California, Davis, CA 95616 USA
4 Department of Animal Science, University of California, Davis, CA 95616 USA


Breeding technology has made significant contributions to the global commercial poultry industry, allowing researchers to develop strains with specific traits for improved productivity and efficiency. Although smallholder poultry production is a prominent activity throughout the world, these advances in breeding technologies have mostly impacted commercial systems and remain inaccessible to smallholders who could benefit from them. This exploratory study sought the perspectives of poultry experts, including individuals from research and academia, veterinary services, private breeding, and international development organizations, to identify key considerations when developing a chicken breeding and distribution program that is sustainable and accessible to smallholder poultry producers. The study involved two phases and consisted of focus groups, qualitative interviews, then quantitative poultry expert questionnaires. Nine key considerations and three unique models of breeding and distribution programs were identified and evaluated for potential sustainability in the family poultry system. Market development and training and education were ranked top criteria to include in program development, and certain chicken traits, especially adaptability to local environment and disease resistance, were considered important to retain in breeding activities. Heifer’s Passing on the Gift model was selected as most appropriate for a rural setting, while a contract farming model was preferred for a peri-urban/urban setting. This study identified generalized information that can contribute to program development, but site-specific, farmer-driven research is necessary to create effective chicken breeding and distribution programs that are accessible and meets the needs of smallholder poultry producers.

Keywords: expert survey, breeding and distribution models, poultry breeding programs


Breeding technology has contributed enormously to the growth of the global commercial poultry industry, allowing researchers to develop breeds/strains with targeted traits such as weight gain, feed efficiency, egg production, egg quality, and resistance to certain stressors and disease (Cheng 2010; Churchill and Biggs 1967; Thiruvenkadan et al 2011). These technologies are responsible for the poultry industry’s exponential growth in countries like China, the United States, and Brazil (FAO 2014). Although smallholder poultry production remains a prominent means of poultry rearing throughout the world, these breeding technologies have mostly benefited commercial poultry production, due in part to smallholder farmers’ inability to access them (Sonaiya 2008). Recent attention from governments and development agencies has brought increased focus on smallholder poultry producers’ constraints such as low productivity and high mortality rates from endemic diseases such as Newcastle Disease (ND). This has resulted in greater efforts to develop more robust strains or breeds and sustainable breeding systems to assuage FP producer challenges, but it remains difficult to distribute and maintain improved breeds among smallholder producers.

Smallholder poultry production is a staple in many households, accounting for up to 80% of all poultry populations in developing countries (Guèye 2000; Pym et al 2006; Sonaiya 2008). Smallholder poultry refers to flocks typically kept in scavenging or semi-scavenging systems with limited housing and few inputs. The low-input low-risk system is valuable to smallholder farmers: eggs and poultry meat are an important source of nutrition and sellable products even when little is invested in terms of time or money. Aside from household consumption and marketing, poultry products are also important in many cultures as gifts or are used in traditional ceremonies (Akinola and Essien 2011).

Generally, Smallholder poultry flocks are comprised of breeds indigenous to the area or indigenous breeds crossed with exotic strains (Sonaiya 2008). These birds are raised as dual-purpose for eggs and meat, and have many valuable traits. They are effective brooders, scavengers, and can fend for themselves in harsh environments where temperatures are often high and they have limited protection from predators. Unfortunately, endemic disease like Newcastle Disease (ND) causes devastating losses among smallholder poultry (Alders et al 2010; Alders and Pym 2009; Khobondo et al 2015). Production rates are also typically low, especially compared to commercial birds. Where commercial layers produce an average of 300 eggs per year, scavenging chickens observed in countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America rarely lay over 100 (Sonaiya and Swan 2007).

Successful breeding programs have helped commercial poultry production overcome many of these constraints (Derry 2012). Broiler chicken strains were developed and are continuously improved by geneticists to have increased feed conversion rates and earlier market-weight gain (Thiruvenkadan et al 2011). In tandem with improved hygiene practices and management practices, molecular genetic studies have also identified methods to enhance resistance to disease and stressors (Cheng 2010; MacEachern et al 2011; McElroy et al 2005; Thiruvenkadan et al 2011). In 1925, US broilers were sold at 112 days old at an average live weight of 1.1 kg, with mortality rates of 18% (National Chicken Council 2016). Fifty years later, breeding and distribution programs had developed broiler breeds that reach an average of 1.7 kg at only 56 days and mortality rates had dropped to 5% (National Chicken Council 2016).

These economically important traits could be integrated into smallholder poultry production systems to aid with disease and productivity constraints. Unfortunately, past efforts to create chicken breeding and distribution programs targeting smallholder poultry producers have not been sustainable and appropriately meet the needs of smallholder farmers (Wilson et al 2015; Singh Fotsa 2011). As part of the USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry, which is aimed at developing a chicken strain with enhanced resistance to Newcastle disease, we compiled a set of key criteria and guidelines for a successful program, based on the experience and knowledge of poultry and development experts.


This research employed a mixed methods sequential approach implemented in two phases. The first phase was comprised of focus group discussions and the administration of a general questionnaire to gather qualitative information on existing models and key criteria for developing a sustainable program. The first phase informed the development of a questionnaire that was conducted in the second phase of the project, to collect corresponding quantitative data on key themes.

Phase 1

A focus group was held at the Sokoine University in Morogoro, Tanzania to collect baseline information on different models of chicken breeding and distribution programs. The focus group was comprised of twenty-four participants, each with expertise in poultry, poultry breeding, and agriculture extension from Tanzania, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, and the US.

A qualitative questionnaire was constructed based on input from the focus groups. Individuals with expertise in poultry in developing countries were recruited to participate via e-mail correspondence. Respondents’ experience covered twenty-three different countries and professional fields including academia, animal production, veterinary medicine, and program management for development agencies. NVivo software (QSR International 2016) was used to code data into themes that fell into the following categories:

1. Current practices in smallholder poultry production systems

2. Examples of chicken breeding and distribution program models

3. Benefits and challenges associated with identified breeding and distribution programs

4. Recommendations for breeding and distribution program models for an improved chicken strain

5. Key challenges and considerations for developing and implementing a sustainable program model

Phase 2

Results from phase 1 informed the development of a questionnaire distributed in the second phase. The questionnaire was developed to collect information on poultry experts’ perspectives on the most effective models to implement a sustainable breeding and distribution program that reaches smallholder farmers. In particular, participants were asked to consider what models offered appropriate criteria to support a breeding and distribution program for a chicken strain with enhanced ND resistance, a major goal of the USAID Genomics to Improve Poultry Innovation Lab (USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry). Moreover, the questionnaire was designed to assess key considerations and challenges to take into account when developing such a program.

The questionnaire was comprised primarily of closed questions, but also allowed for participant explanations through semi-open and open questions. In addition to asking about current practices related to breeding, the participants were also questioned regarding three breeding and distribution models identified in phase 1. The questionnaire is available to view at the USAID Development Data Library (

We invited 183 professionals who have worked or were working in developing countries with smallholder poultry producers at the time of the study to complete an online questionnaire. Recruits were requested to further invite colleagues to participate in the questionnaire.

Experts were identified if they met one or more of the following criteria:

1. Performed research and published articles on smallholder poultry production and/or poultry in developing countries;

2. Experience working for a project targeting smallholder poultry production and/or poultry in developing countries;

3. Participation in conferences on smallholder poultry production and/or poultry in developing countries.

We made purposive efforts to recruit appropriate numbers of individuals with experience in various regions of the world and with varied professional backgrounds.


Phase 1
Key considerations.

Participants in Phase 1 identified key criteria and challenges to consider when implementing a chicken breeding and distribution program for an improved chicken strain targeting smallholder poultry producers. Their responses were coded thematically into the nine categories (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Key considerations referenced by participants

Relevant policy may include importation barriers or taxation on big primary breeding companies that pose competition for smaller hatcheries and imported breeds that are inappropriate for smallholder poultry producers. Policy may also be introduced to support conservation efforts for maintaining indigenous breeds.


Transportation infrastructure including road improvement and transportation services and operational infrastructure breeding centers, and hatcheries.

Training and education

Appropriate training to “sensitize” recipients to the improved strain and applicable management practices. Marketing and basic business skills, disease prevention and biosecurity, and feeding practices were listed as important areas to focus farmer training

Cultural norms and socioeconomic aspects

Comprehending cultural norms and how socioeconomic factors influence smallholder poultry production is crucial for targeting and ensuring equal access of the product.


Accessibility should be addressed from both the smallholder farmers’ standpoint as well as a program’s ability to reach and work with farmers. Farmers may need consistent access to inputs and resources to support the new breed. Accessibility challenges will be different depending on where beneficiaries live: rural farmers will be more constrained to acquire inputs than those who live in urban or peri-urban settings.

Network development

Establishing a supportive network for producers may include public-private partnerships (PPP) and creating links along the poultry value chain.

Appropriate breed and technology

The breed must be attractive to farmers and meet their breeding and production goals. Breed sustainability and genetic dilution is also a challenge in breeding programs.


smallholder poultry production systems are typically characterized as having the lowest levels of biosecurity measures of all poultry production systems due to the extensive nature of the system (Sonaiya 2008). Disease control and biosecurity practices are important to prevent flock mortalities and to protect human health.

Market development

Market development may be needed is breeding goals aim at increasing productivity: farmers may need new avenues to new markets. A market might also need to be built up around production inputs.

Models of breeding and distribution.

In phase 1, several models of distribution were identified and compared. The following three prominent models were selected for use in Phase 2.

The open-nucleus breeding scheme (OBNS).

The first model (Figure 2) was an OBNS. This model has been applied to a range of livestock to select for superior traits from within a herd or community flock, referred to as the “nucleus” flock (Gondwe et al 2003; Yapi-Gnaorénet al 2003).

Figure 2. Open-nucleus breeding scheme (OBNS)
Contract farming model

The second model exemplified a version of contract farming for chicken production (Figure 3). Contract farming, also referred to as vertical integration, is the predominant business model in the commercial poultry industry, and has revolutionized farming practices and production on a global scale (Narrod et al 2012). Recently some organizations have assessed the potential to promote this system in developing countries as a way of engaging smallholder farmers with larger production schemes of agricultural commodities (Bijman 2008). This model unites producers with contractors who make a pre-harvest agreement to purchase an amount of product for a predetermined price.

Figure 3. Contract farming model
Passing-on-the-gift (POG) model

The third model (Figure 4) was what is sometimes referred to as the livestock-in-kind credit model or the POG model, first introduced by Heifer International (Heifer International 2016). This principle is based on the idea that “each assisted family helps another family obtain the same or similar benefits” (De Vries 2012), thus working towards improving the productive asset base of poor and vulnerable populations (Sumberg and Lankoandé 2013).

Figure 4. Livestock-in-kind model, based on the Heifer International model (Heifer International 2016)
Phase 2

Fifty-seven experts provided complete responses to the questionnaire in Phase 2. Respondents identified their profession in the following categories: academia (53%), veterinary medicine (18%), animal production or agribusiness (16%), program management (9%), or research (4%). Participants regional experience covered Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, and Central Asia.

Current production systems

Participants were asked how, in their experience, smallholder poultry producers typically obtain new birds for their flocks. This information is critical as programs will likely be most successful by adopting practices that are working well within the current production system and understanding the typical activities associated with building a smallholder poultry flock.

Seventy-five percent of participants indicated that birds are most often produced on the farm, followed by receipt as gifts, exchange, or through inheritance (38.89%), and purchased from live bird market (28.6%). Just over eleven percent thought it likely that smallholder poultry producers would purchase from private hatcheries. When asked specifically about how producers obtain new chicks, the majority of respondents (78.95%) reported that they were produced on farm. Eleven-percent of participants indicated that producers purchase birds from private hatcheries.


Participants also provided their perceptions on the traits most important and desirable for smallholder poultry producers. The following traits were identified in Phase 1: egg productivity, disease resistance, physical appearance, taste, weight gain efficiency, adaptability to local environment, brooding ability, breed, heat tolerance, and reliance on inputs.

In Phase 2, participants were asked to rate traits based on a scale from “extremely important” (1) to “not important at all” (5). Adaptability to local environment and disease resistance were perceived as extremely important, each receiving a median rank of 1, followed by brooding ability (median rank of 1.5). These traits, which are critical for survival and reproduction, are important to the low input nature of the smallholder poultry production system, where birds often fend for themselves in harsh environments and are not routinely vaccinated against disease threats (Alders and Pym 2009; Sonaiya 2008).

Ranking considerations

Participants of Phase 2 ranked these considerations in terms of importance in establishing a sustainable program for smallholder poultry producers. The majority of respondents ranked market development and training and education as the two most important considerations (Table 1). “If (smallholder farmers) double flock size and productivity but have no one to sell chicken meat to, are they really better off?” pointed out one participant. Several participants stressed the importance of appropriate training and the need for farmers to be sensitized to the improved strain and applicable management practices. Marketing and basic business skills, disease prevention and biosecurity, and feeding practices were listed as important areas to focus farmer training.

Comparing models

The chicken breeding and distribution models were evaluated and ranked based on participants’ perceptions of how the models might perform in a rural setting and a peri-urban/urban setting (Figure 5). In a rural setting, the POG model was preferred by the majority (46.2%) of participants, followed by the OBNS model (36.5%), and the contract farming (23.04%). In contrast, 47% of participants preferred the contract farming model for a peri-urban/urban environment followed by the OBNS model (29.4%) and the POG model (23.5%).

Figure 5. Participants’ first ranked models for a rural and urban setting

Although the POG model was ranked highest ranking for a rural setting by the majority of respondents, many participants added that this model would need strong monitoring, training of program-selected farmers and community farmers in order to be sustainable. Those who preferred the OBNS model appreciated that the focus was on improving indigenous breeds; one participant felt that “producers are more empowered in this model and policies are put in place to conserve indigenous breeds that are more resistance to disease”. The OBNS model was also considered to best support stakeholder participation in a rural setting.

In an urban setting, the contract farming model was ranked highest. Participants felt that producers would be closer to necessary inputs and a ready market. One participant explained that urban settings are more suited for “intensified systems”, as might be best facilitated through contract farming.

Importantly, many participants asserted that their responses were generalized, and that prior to using any of these models, a project needs to consider the intended location and conduct site-specific research. A few suggested that a combination of the models might be preferable, depending on the local context, including existing infrastructure and key actors in the poultry value chain.



This study is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry. The contents of this study are the sole responsibility of University of California, Davis and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government. Thank you also to the poultry experts devoted to improving smallholder family poultry capacity in developing countries for providing literature on your research and experiences.


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Received 7 December 2017; Accepted 25 January 2018; Published 1 April 2018

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