Livestock Research for Rural Development 16 (11) 2004

Citation of this paper

Rearing chicks in enclosures under village conditions: effect on chick growth and reproductive performance of mother hens

H Lwesya, R K D Phoya, A C L Safalaoh and T N P Gondwe

Department of Animal Science, University of Malawi, Bunda College of Agriculture,
PO Box 219, Lilongwe, Malawi.   or


An on-farm experiment was conducted to investigate the effect of rearing chicks in woven basket enclosures on chick growth, survivability and reproductive performance of mother hens. The chicks were given supplementary feeding comprising on-farm mixed mash during brooding with the mother for two weeks and when they were kept in enclosures. Thereafter, the chicks were kept in enclosures for periods of 4, 6 and 8 weeks before being released on free range. For the control treatment, chicks were left with the mother until natural weaning occurred.

Period of enclosure significantly affected the number of days mother hens took to subsequent laying. The periods to subsequent laying by hens after brooding were 90.5 ± 2.38, 100 ± 4.96, 35.8 ± 4.29 and 32.8 ± 4.29 days for 4 weeks in enclosure, no enclosure, 8 and 6 weeks in enclosure treatments during the wet season. Chicks that were enclosed and fed for 8 weeks (wet season) had higher overall weight gains (222 ± 21.2g) followed by those in the dry season and those enclosed for 6 weeks (both seasons) (170 ± 21.25g, 165 ± 19.20g and 166 ± 17.20g). Chicks on control (un supplement) had the least weight gains, 40.8 ± 19.91g and 75.7 ± 10.4 g for wet and dry seasons, respectively. Chick mortality was highest for those enclosed for 4 weeks and the controls for both seasons.

Although productivity increased with keeping birds in enclosures with supplementary feeding provided, the cost of achieving the increased output is far in excess of the benefits.

Key words: Chicks, enclosures, growth, reproductive performance


Poultry, particularly chickens, are the most prevalent type of livestock in Malawi. Almost 83% of the total poultry population is found in the smallholder extensive production system where the indigenous chickens form the largest proportion of chickens kept (Safalaoh 2001; Malawi Government 1999; Safalaoh 1992). Due to their wide distribution among households, indigenous chickens make a considerable contribution to livelihoods of most rural people in terms of source of food, manure, traditional ceremonies and local rituals (Safalaoh 2001; 1992; Malawi Government 1999). Kampeni (1998) indicated that almost 75-80% of animal protein (excluding fish) in rural areas comes from indigenous chickens. However, despite their contribution, indigenous chickens are characterised by slow growth rates, small body size, low egg production and low hatchability (Safalaoh 1997). Safalaoh (2002) and Malawi Government (1999) reported that indigenous chickens give three clutches per year with an average of 12 eggs per clutch. This low productivity is aggravated by other constraining factors such as predation (especially of young chicks less than six weeks old), poor nutrition, inclement weather and diseases (Safalaoh 2002; Kampeni 2000. Chicks tend to be the weakest among chicken flocks and, as such, cannot compete with adult birds for feed available from the scavenging feed resource base (Roberts 1999).

In the face of these problems, it therefore becomes imperative to explore interventions that may increase productivity through increased number of clutches per year and reduction of losses due to predation. Rearing chicks in enclosures before weaning has been recommended (Safalaoh 2002; Farrell 2000). However, there is paucity of information regarding the effectiveness and benefits of keeping chicks in enclosures in Malawi. Due to the need for provision of feed under enclosures, the immediate question that arises is: "how long the chicks should be kept in enclosures?". This on-farm study was therefore conducted to assess the effect of rearing chicks in enclosures on chick growth (weight gain and survivability) and performance of mother hens (period taken from weaning to next laying cycle). Since the scavenging feed resource base (SFRB) varies with season, the experiments were conducted in both wet and dry seasons.

Materials and Methods

Site and selection of participants

The study was carried out in Kumala Village in Lilongwe West Rural Development Project in the Central region of Malawi. Farmers were selected through stratified sampling where farmers with a broody hen and owned a chick basket were purposely selected to participate in the study. The study was carried in two seasons namely wet rainy (February to April) and cold dry (May to July) seasons.

Poultry health

All birds used in the study were vaccinated against Newcastle disease (ND) using Lasota vaccine at three-monthly intervals. Each household contributed K5.00 (1US$=100 Malawi Kwacha- K) for purchase of the vaccine.


After hatching, the hens remained in the enclosure with the chicks for two weeks (brooding period). The hens were then divided into four treatments based on periods chicks remained with the mother hen in enclosures viz: NC: no enclosure; E4: Chicks confined for four weeks; E6: Chicks confined for six weeks; and E8: Chicks confined for eight weeks.


The chicks and the mother hen were provided with an on-farm mixed chick mash containing (calculated analysis) 22% crude protein, %; 3480 kcal/kg, Metabolizable Energy; 2.47% crude fibre, 1.44% calcium and 2.85% phosphorous. Since the chicks were mixed with the mother hen, the diet was formulated to primarily first meet the protein and nutrient requirements of the chicks not the mother hen, hence 22% CP.

The chicks and mother hen were given 300g per day. The feed was measured using a graduated measuring cup which contained feed weighing approximately 300g when full. This was used to defray expenses on purchase of weighing scales which are too expensive for a local farmer.

Data collection

Data collected included survivability (and mortality) of chicks; weekly body weights, period to weaning and number of chicks weaned; number of days taken for mother hen to come back into lay.

Data Analysis

The following model was used:

Yijk= m + Ti + + Sj+eijk


Yijk = number of days taken for the hens to start laying subsequent clutch
m= overall mean
Ti= effect of length of enclosure period, i=1-4
Sj= effect of season, j=1-2
Yijk = residual effect

Data were subjected to analysis of variance using General Linear Model procedures of SAS statistical package (SAS 1999). The least square means were computed and compared using least significant difference (LSD). Percent chick mortality was transformed into natural log to take care of the non-homogeneity of the samples. Cost benefit analysis was done using gross margins. The cost of feed included cost of ingredients that were used in feed formulation, cost of charcoal for roasting soybeans, cost for roasting, grinding and compounding. Cost of vaccine (Lasota for NCD) was MK5.00 per household irrespective of size of flock (1US$=MK110).

Results and discussion

The interaction of treatment and season was not significant.

Onset of lay

It is evident from Table 1 that period of enclosure had significant effects on the time taken by hens to come into lay in either wet or dry seasons. The hens whose chicks were on the control treatment (NE) took significantly longer time to go back into egg laying than the enclosed ones. There was no difference in time taken between chicks enclosed for 6 and 8 weeks. Keeping chicks in enclosures for 4 and 6 weeks reduced the time taken by 32% and 67% respectively. This suggests that the productivity of indigenous chickens could be tripled if kept in enclosures as there would be at least 9 clutches instead of the present average of 3. With 9 clutches per year, at least 108 eggs could be produced (taking an average of 12 eggs per clutch) from an average local chicken (Safalaoh 1997). It is also clear from this study that a period of four weeks may be too short for the mother hen to break the brooding instinct. As a result, the hens started mothering the chicks again thereby taking a longer time to wean the chicks when compared to the other treatments.

Table 1.  Effect of early weaning of chicks on time taken for the mother hens to start laying subsequent clutch (Means and their standard error; N = number of hens involved).


Number of days to come back into subsequent lay

Wet season

Dry season



































a-d Means within rows and columns without  common  superscripts are different at P<0.05
*NE: = control, no enclosure; E4. Chicks confined for four weeks; E6  Chicks confined for six weeks, E8 Chicks confined for eight weeks.

These findings are in agreement with what was reported elsewhere (Sazzad 1993; Roberts 1995; Dessie and Ogle 1996; Kampeni 1998 and Boki 2000). In his study, Sazzad (1993), reported a reduction in the non-productive days from 65.1 days to 38.5 days.  In that study the chicks were separated from their mother hens at an age of four weeks while in the current study, the chicks were separated from their mother hen at the age of two weeks. Evidently, time of separation from the mother hen definitely has an impact on period taken by mother hens to come back into lay.

Although not significantly different for the three treatments, chicks enclosed for four weeks showed a different trend. In the wet season, hens took less time to come into lay than in the dry season. This could be attributed to the nutritional status prevailing at that moment. During the wet season, the SFRB was mainly comprised of green leaves and insects while in the dry season, there were vast amounts of grains as this was after the harvest season. Good nutrition in the dry season may have enhanced egg production. The degree to which the scavenging system meets requirements for growth and production depends upon the resource base available for scavenging (Ologhobo 1992).

Growth performance

There were no significant differences in weight gains between the control and chicks enclosed for 4 and 6 weeks (Table 2). However, the weight gains were significantly better for the chicks enclosed for eight weeks. This could mainly be attributed to the fact that for a period of eight weeks, the chicks had access to a nutritionally balanced diet compared to the others. For the control treatment (NE), the chicks had no extra feed or supplements apart from the SFRB hence the low body weight gains. On the control treatment, the chicks were generally small and too weak to compete with adult chickens as observed by Roberts (1997). Additionally, the chicks were also competing with other animal species like pigs, goats, dogs and a range of wild scavengers. As a result, the chicks that were on the control treatment had the least weight gains at the end of the experiment. The protein content of the SFRB has been reported to be far too low for optimal growth requirements of village chicks (Roberts 1999).

Table 2. Effect of early weaning of chicks on average weight gains at 8 weeks of age (Least square means and their standard error; n= number of hens).


Weekly gain weight, g

Wet season

Dry season


Weekly gain, g



Weekly gain, g






























a-d Means within rows and columns without common  superscripts are different at P<0.05.

Comparisons between seasons (Table 2) indicated that weight gains for chicks enclosed for eight weeks during the wet season were significantly  higher than the rest. During the wet rainy season, there was a lot of green grass, insects, worms, snails and other invertebrates. These were the sources of protein for the chicks. Towards the end of the rainy wet season, farmers were harvesting their crop produce such as maize, soybeans, groundnuts hence an expansion of the SFRB. Similar observations have been made by Minga et al (2000). The performance of the chicks enclosed for 6 and 8 weeks were not significantly different during the dry season probably due to the fact that the SFRB was abundant during this period.

Survivability/mortality of chicks

At the end of the 8 week study, there were significantly more chicks on the treatment E6, where the chicks stayed enclosed for six weeks, followed by those that were enclosed for eight weeks (E8). This could be attributed to the fact that these chicks were released for scavenging when they were larger and heavier (than the control group) such that they were able to compete for feed in the SFRB, while being clever and old enough to run away from predators. This is in agreement with Roberts (1997) who reported that young chicks tend to be weaker, hence cannot favourably compete with hens for feed let alone escape from predators. This is evident for chicks kept on free range with the mother hen where survival was the lowest. Most of the chicks from the control treatment succumbed to predation as they were small and generally weak and could therefore not run away from predators as alluded to earlier.

Figure 1. Percent survival of chicks at the end of the experiment
according to the length of time they were enclosed f enclosure during wet or dry season



The authors would like to thank the Danish Agricultural Sector Programme Support (DASPS) - Livestock Component for the financial assistance provided to conduct this study. The support and cooperation of farmers from Kumala village and extension personnel from Lilongwe West Rural Development during the study period is highly appreciated.


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Received 12 August 2004; Accepted 26 August 2004

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