India's poultry sector has transformed from a backyard activity into a technology-intensive vibrant industry. This metamorphosis is unique in some respects. A notable feature that sets this sector apart from its counterparts in other developing countries is its total self-reliance in technology generation as well as the production of needed equipment and inputs. It also has world-class infrastructure for breeding poultry birds, diagnosing diseases, producing vaccines and processing poultry products. Significantly, both the public and private sectors have contributed to this progress.
Unlike dairying, where the bulk of growth has been in the unorganised sector, comprising small milk producers owning four or five cattle or buffaloes each, the poultry revolution is driven chiefly by the proliferation of organised sector poultry farming. Over 70 per cent of the country's poultry output comes from the organised sector and is sold mostly in the cities.
An unwarranted consequence of the urban orientation of the poultry industry is the wide disparity in the availability and consumption of poultry meat and eggs in rural and urban areas. Official estimates indicate that while the annual per capita availability of eggs in big cities is as high as 170 eggs, in rural areas it is merely 20 eggs. The consumption of poultry meat is similarly skewed.
Another striking feature of the country's poultry sector is that despite the advancement on the production front, the consumer preferences have tended to remain, by and large, unchanged. Most buyers still prefer to buy live birds and get them dressed in their presence. Broiler chickens with colourful plumage, resembling the conventional desi (native) chicks reared as range birds in the countryside, get priority, and also price premium, over the white birds produced in the organised sector poultry farms. The same is true of eggs with customers willing to pay higher prices for those having a brownish tinge.
Catering to the consumer's choice is, therefore, one of the objectives of the poultry breeders. They are trying to evolve breeds that resemble the indigenous multi-coloured birds and produce brown eggs. The public sector poultry breeders, on the other hand, have an additional objective of popularising poultry farming as a backyard activity, which can be achieved by evolving high-performing breeds of multi-coloured birds capable of adapting to backyards as well as factory farms.
In recent years, several such widely adaptable breeds have been bred by the poultry research facilities of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and state agricultural universities, besides the private sector poultry breeders. The Izatnagar (Bareilly)-based Central Avian Research Institute (CARI) alone has developed over a dozen of coloured chicken breeds, many of which are dual-purpose types, suitable for both meat and egg production. Some of these have already been passed on to the commercial poultry farms as well as rural households.
Some new poultry breeds, evolved at different research centres, are also ready for commercialisation. The details of these breeds have been outlined in a booklet brought out by ICAR as part of its new series of publications on commercialised and commercialisation-worthy technologies in different fields of agriculture. The volume on technologies in the animal sciences sector lists about 20-odd breeds of coloured chicks that have either been given to poultry farmers or are ready to be passed on to interested entrepreneurs for commercial production. ICAR Deputy Director-General (animal sciences) K M L Pathak maintains that the availability of such breeds will help popularise poultry in rural areas and, at the same time, strengthen linkages between research organisations and small and large commercial poultry enterprises. Prominent among the new breeds on offer are Vanaraja, Gramapriya, Krishbro and Madhavaram chicken-1. These are meant largely for backyard free-range poultry farming and small-scale commercial units in and around rural areas. Birds of all these breeds have good marketability because of their multi-hued plumage and brownish eggs. Some of them, notably Krishbro, can easily be sold as desi chicken to claim higher prices. Its meat, too, resembles that of native birds. Its broilers gain 1.5 to two kg in six weeks. Such breeds can help small and marginal farmers to take up poultry farming as a supplementary activity to earn additional income.