Winter for the poultry industry is like summer for ice-cream makers. The winter months are when consumption of chicken and eggs peaks, with those rearing broiler and layer birds also realising better rates.
But this time it is different, thanks to the outbreak of avian influenza, now confirmed in 10 states — Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, and Delhi.
Since last Wednesday, when reports of deaths of birds from the disease started coming in, farmgate prices of broiler chicken have crashed from around Rs 82 to Rs 58 per kg in Maharashtra, Rs 94 to Rs 65 in Gujarat, and Rs 80 to Rs 70 in Tamil Nadu.
Over the same period, egg prices have fallen from Rs 5.10 to Rs 4.20 per piece in Namakkal (Tamil Nadu), Rs 5.35 to Rs 4.05 in Barwala (Haryana), and Rs 5.30 to Rs 4.50 in Pune.
An estimated 1.3 crore live broiler birds and 20 crore eggs on average are sold daily in India, and these numbers can rise to 1.5 crore and 28-29 crore during winter. The bird flu scare, however, has led to consumption dropping by 30-40 per cent in the last 4-5 days, according to B Soundararajan, chairman of the Rs 8,700 crore-plus-turnover Suguna Foods Pvt Ltd.
This is almost a repeat of the collapse that took place after mid-January last year, when reports of the spread of the novel coronavirus in China were gathering momentum. The price crash then was triggered by unsubstantiated rumours about poultry products, especially chicken meat, posing the risk of Covid-19.
This time too, fear is playing a part. The deaths being attributed to the avian influenza outbreak are mainly of crows, pigeons, ducks, egrets/herons, peacocks, and other wild or migratory birds. Deaths of poultry birds have so far been confirmed only from Parbhani in Maharashtra and Barwala in Haryana. In Parbhani, free-range backyard hens have died; the deaths in organised poultry farms have occurred in Barwala, which is an egg-producing hub. The 120-odd farms here house only layer birds.
Poultry birds mostly safe
Although birds have died in 10 states so far, the only example of deaths in organised poultry farms has come from Haryana. Since birds in poultry farms are generally isolated, chances of their catching the virus from foreign avian species are low.
“The carriers of the flu virus are mostly migratory birds from Siberia and other cold regions that come to India during November-February to escape the extreme winters there. They live close to water bodies here, from where local birds contract the virus. But these would be free-living birds, not the ones raised in organised poultry farms,” Soundararajan, whose company is India’s largest broiler producer, told The Indian Express.
Dr A S Ranade, dean of Mumbai Veterinary College, said chances of birds in organised poultry farms getting infected were very low. This is because they are kept in near isolation. Meat-yielding broilers, which are reared from day-old chicks weighing 35-40 g to market-ready birds of 2-2.5 kg over 42-45 days, are housed in covered sheds with floors having bedding material made from coir pith or paddy husk. Layer poultry birds are kept in cages, further minimising their contact with foreign avian species.
That makes the current outbreak all the more different. It is the supposedly hardier desi poultry breeds such as Kaveri and Kadaknath that are more susceptible to the virus. “The Leghorn chickens reared in organised poultry farms (typically housing 7,000-8,000 birds) that adhere to scientific vaccination schedules and feeding regimens, are at far less risk,” Prasanna Pedgaonkar, general manager of the Pune-based Venkateshwara Hatcheries Pvt Ltd, said.
All this is of no consolation to farmers. Deepak Pawale, who owns a 40,000-bird farm at Retavadi village in Khed taluka of Pune district, is now selling his broilers at Rs 59-60 per kg. “My production cost is Rs 74. I lost Rs 30 lakh during Covid when my birds went for Rs 10-15/kg. Just when my business was recovering, it is the turn of bird flu. Why can’t the government educate consumers against fears that have no basis?” he said.