Chicken project success story

2010-02-09 00:00

Statistics show a high failure rate among emerging agricultural enterprises. This is particularly true in the case of chicken production, where, being more exigent, often more than 90% of projects start collapse after the first year or so, with large sums of start-up capital being wasted. So it is gratifying to come across a successful venture, especially when it is found in difficult rural circumstances.

Thembekile Ngubane has been involved with chickens since she was a young girl. She says at times the chickens used to stay in the dwelling home at night. She started really learning the finer points of chicken production in the early nineties from Shahn Bisschop when they were involved with the Centre­ for Low Input Agricultural Research and Development (CLIARD), which is linked to the University of Zululand­, and again with the Hlangabeza company that National Chicks helped set up to assist small rural broiler producers with input and mentoring (Hlangabeza Veterinary Consultants is now owned by Dr Shahn Bisschop). Her husband died in the early eighties and she raised their three sons, Dumo, Sibonelo and Mpilo, on her own. The boys were educated largely on the income that she made from her broiler and crop projects. All three were top students in their respective years at the KwaZulu-Natal Poultry Institute based in Pietermaritzburg.

Unfortunately, Dumo and Mpilo have, at least temporarily, been lost to the poultry industry as they are both studying for university degrees in other subjects (human movements science and engineering, respectively). However, Sibonelo now runs the family agricultural­ enterprise with his mother­.

It was around 1993 that Ngubane started doing broiler production on her own in a more serious way. She used to buy 100 day-old coloured broilers at a time (from Day Star Hatchery near Stanger), rear them until three weeks of age and then sell them with the required amount of finisher feed to neighbouring farmers. Her chicken house at that stage could hold 200 birds, so she eventually progressed to this number of day-olds for each batch.

This continued until 2004 when the well-constructed broiler houses they now use were built (near Mtubatuba in northern KwaZulu-Natal). There are four divisions, each with the capacity to hold 700 broilers until slaughter age. The manure from the broiler houses is put on the fields (the only fertiliser that is used) and they grow excellent crops of potatoes, mealies, butternut, beans and various vegetables.

The Ngubanes currently have a regular­ order for 600 day-old broilers every two weeks, selling them at between 5,5 and 6,5 weeks of age. Feed is purchased at a depot in Mtubatuba. Since they now have electricity, infra-red lamps are used for brooding, but in that hot area, very little artificial heating is necessary, especially in summer. They achieve good weights and a mortality of between seven percent and 10%. Water is pumped from a nearby river and chlorinated in their storage tanks. Vaccination against Newcastle Disease and Gumboro is carried out routinely. They are particularly conscientious about cleaning out and disinfecting the houses after each batch (they use a high-pressure hose). Sibonelo generally works on his own, but hires casual labour for big jobs such as cleaning out the houses. It is clear that the management is top-notch, including the keeping of good records.

The market is good and they usually sell all their birds easily. Demand has dropped off somewhat since the recession and January is always a bad month as people have spent all their money over the holiday period. Some vendors buy in bulk to resell elsewhere. They make a good margin of often­ more than R6 a bird.

What problems do they experience? Water, as is so often the case in rural areas, seems to be the main problem as the river they use sometimes runs dry in winter. They also have difficulty getting wood shavings for litter nearby and have to drive long distances to obtain shavings. Before they obtained a bakkie in 2001, getting chicks and feed to their farm was also a problem and transport was a large expense item. They occasionally lose birds to thieves. They have never had a serious disease problem.

To what do the Ngubanes attribute their extraordinary long-term success where so many others have failed? The terms knowledge and experience are mentioned frequently — they don’t need mentoring. The family as a whole is exceptionally well trained in poultry management and has a vast experience from many years of practice.

Another attribute that they find important is the willingness and ability to work hard, starting the day early — the products of this are again evident. Organisational­ ability and perseverance are other characteristics that come to mind.

Good financial management has also been important – they concentrate on savings, not “eating” all their profits, and live simply. Diversification (chickens and crops) has helped them do well.

And what are their future plans? Sibonelo intends to expand the broiler operation as soon as the market improves. He also wants to start with layers­ as there is a big demand for eggs in their area. Buying feed locally is expensive­ so they want to negotiate with the feed manufacturers to arrange bulk delivery from Pietermaritzburg.

Ngubane says she now wants to concentrate on her village-Zulu chickens — she likes them and she can make more from selling one such chicken than from the sale of a broiler.

• Dr Ed Wethli is a retired poultry expert.

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