Ducks are raised free range for no other reason than opportunity to provide water for swimming, although successful indoor production shows this is not absolutely necessary.  Sufficient water for ducks to dunk their heads to avoid eye infections is advised. Duck production in Vietnam has been as "free" as free range is likely to get.  Flocks of "feral" ducks roam paddy fields with no immediately obvious ownership and responsibility.

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One peculiar aspect of Vietnam's traditional duck production methods, especially in the Mekong Delta, is where farmers ferry flocks of ducks from one district to another and even one province to another, usually by boat, to feed on spilled grain after the rice paddy harvest.  Such production systems are laudable for the integrated sustainable format, but have done much to help spread and consolidate H5N1.  It also makes it nearly impossible for the authorities to ensure satisfactory disease management by vaccination.

Government urges farmers to incorporate bio-safety measures 

After four years of trying to a get grip on the country's highly mobile free-range duck population and persistent failure to stamp out H5N1, the government is finally urging farmers to stop raising free-range ducks. As an alternative, it is incentivising farmers to incorporate bio-safety measures, claiming it will help prevent another H5N1 pandemic in poultry, human infection, and loss of life, says a report written by Thien Ly for Viet Nam News (VNS).

Typical of duck farmers targeted by the government is Le Minh Doi of My Hoa Commune, Thap Muoi District, Dong Thap Province (Mekong Delta), where a trio of local veterinary workers were inoculating ducks against H5N1 HPAI when he was interviewed by VNS. "This is the second time they've [the ducks] got the vaccine. The first was 15 days after the eggs hatched," Doi said. "Before vaccination, they were given vitamin drops to build up their resistance to the vaccine’s side effects." This 48-year-old farmer is among many in the Mekong Delta who are now incorporating bio-safety measures into duck breeding.

"My birds are raised on a closed farm. This is in keeping with experts' advice to watch where animals stay and live, to prevent them from mixing with wild birds, and to keep different animal species separate," Doi said. "We give the ducks industrially-processed food and clean water sources changed every four days. Using the safe farming model brings us a lot of benefits, including extra profit," he told Thien Ly of VNS.

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To raise 1,000 ducks, Doi needs an $1,810 investment, but after 60 days, collects a profit of $905 to $1,207 profit as well as a fish pond worth about the same amount. A duck raised with bio-safety measures usually weighs 3.0 to 3.5kg and is sold for $2.11 per kg, heavier and more profitable than by traditional free-range production. This produces birds weighing only 1.5 to 2kg, which sell for just $1.21 to $1.33 per kg. By adopting the closed farm system, Doi has reduced his labour inputs and can now comfortably raise 2,000 ducks at any one time on his own.


"Now, I not only make more money, but have more time to do housework like gardening and helping my kids' with their schoolwork," he said. "Duck droppings can be used for raising fish and that's good for the environment." When Doi's ducks were free range on the paddy fields, two or even three paid workers were necessarily hired to watch over them. In addition, he had to pay landowners $13.27 to $15.08 in rent for each hectare of harvested paddy field that his ducks feed were on to feed on spilled rice grain.

Free-range ducks succumbing to H5N1 

Free-range ducks are at greater risk from H5N1 through mingling with potentially infected wild migratory water fowl and ingesting infected faeces suspended in the water of the rice paddy field. Under the previous free-range system, Doi’s ducks were succumbing to H5N1 on a huge scale. "In 2003, I quit farming after losing over $6,000 when more than 4,000 of my ducks were culled because of bird flu. But then I restocked and went back to breeding ducks in late 2005 since I had no other career options," he told Thien Ly.

Another farmer who has converted to an enclosed production system, through bitter experience and government encouragement, is Huynh Tan Man of Chau Thanh District in Long An province, also in the Mekong Delta. "I changed my farming methods in early 2007, he said. “Now the flock stays in a fenced area on a section of a canal for at least 10 days before they’re moved somewhere else. I always check the new field carefully in advance to make sure it’s [likely to be] disease-free. I also carry out all the necessary preventive measures, like vaccinations," he said. "After more than a year of using the bio-safe method, I made a profit of $6,033, along with over $3,000 from raising fish on duck droppings," he said. The extra money has been used to take care of Man’s family of six as well as more ducks. He recently purchased an incubator, said VNS. "The bio-safety measures really helped us avoid the nightmares that bird flu caused last time," he said.

Preventative measures imposed to prevent spread 

Arrival of the H5N1 virus in late 2003 and early 2004 has led to more than 2,000 outbreaks in poultry. Hundreds of thousands of birds have died and around 50 million culled during the unsuccessful attempt to stamp out the disease. In addition, the virus has moved into its human dimension, infecting 106 people with 52 fatalities. During the successive waves of virus that swept across the country, the government temporarily banned duck breeding. Waterfowl are more tolerant of the virus and carry the infection without expressing symptoms, while still excreting large quantities of virus that spreads the disease.

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Ducks have been dubbed the silent spreaders and Trojan Horses for H5N1. When the situation in Vietnam eased during 2006, farmers resumed raising ducks. Local authorities imposed preventive measures to protect flocks from contracting the disease, including the promotion of new methods of duck breeding. Both dry breeding and breeding within closed farms became increasingly popular across the Mekong Delta.

An Giang claims that it lead the way among Mekong Delta provinces in development and adoption of these safer farming models. Over 13 percent of all duck raising households have closed farms and the figure is predicted to rise to 50 percent by the end of 2008. In Tay Ninh Province, more than 20,000 ducks are now raised on closed farms, while farmers in Dong Thap Province use fenced trenches, fish ponds, and rice fields to raise ducks. These new models have proven to be much more effective in avoiding bird flu and managing its spread.

New methods remain out of reach for many farmers 

However, these new methods remain out of the reach for many duck breeders in the Mekong Delta, even though their benefits are self evident. VNS demonstrated this point when visiting less well financed rice/duck farmers, this time in Phu loi District of Soc Trang province. They described the situation of Nguyen Van Hoi, whom they met while he was feeding the thousands of ducks swimming around his legs in the rice paddy by broadcasting a mixture of mash and dried fish. Hoi is clearly still immersed in the traditional free range system of raising ducks in Vietnam.

"I have been raising ducks for more than 20 years. I know all the advantages the bio-safety method can bring. However, I have neither the knowledge nor the cash or land to apply the new method so I’m using the traditional one," he told Thien Ly. "I recognise that free-range farming is out of line with official policy but I cannot give up my means of living," said the father of five. "The bio-safe model would cost us more money because I'd have to buy feed for the ducks and find enough land to enclose them," Hoi said. "My ducks now eat snails and insects because they roam freely."

Difficulties converting for farmers 

Duong Van Chenh, a duck breeder in Soc Trang City, told VNS of the difficulties farmers face in converting to the enclosed system, "Changing models is hard. The new one requires a big investment, and most of our capital sources limited." According to Chenh, most breeders lack the necessary training to use the new techniques. "We cannot apply the bio-safety measures unless the government and relevant agencies offer technical and financial support," he told Thien Ly.

Dr. Duong Xuan Tuyen, an expert from the National Institute of Animal Husbandry, says conditions in the Mekong Delta are ideal for raising ducks and this is why it is the main source of livelihood, especially for resource-poor farmers. "The region now has 10 provinces that are raising more than 20 million ducks, accounting for 34 percent of the country's total," said Tuyen. "Many still use free-range techniques because they require modest investments and no breeding facilities. Between 65 to 70 percent of ducks in the Mekong are raised that way," he said.

Bio-safety models to ensure sustainable development 

Tuyen told VNS how there were other benefits, in addition to minimal input costs, for use of the traditional free- range system. These include biological control of rice pests where roaming ducks consume insects like brown plant hoppers and molluscs such as yellow snails, as well as providing manure and clean fields. "However, the traditional free-range model creates opportunities for epidemics [of H5N1] to break out and it is difficult to contain their spread once they do," said Tuyen. "To ensure sustainable development of the local duck industry, we must apply bio-safety models on a large scale and minimise small scale production with drastic measures."

Nguyen Ba Thanh, director of the Region 7 Veterinary Centre, told VNS, "Farmers should be familiarised with preventive steps like vaccinations, bio-safety measures and disease surveillance. Local veterinary workers should have opportunities to participate in training courses to improve their professional skills. It's easy to adopt such measures against epidemics within industrial or closed farms, but small scale ones are hard to keep track of."

Enclosed duck breeding strategy 

Xuan Men, head of Can Tho University's agriculture faculty, said, "Developing duck breeding enhances the delta’s strengths since it is utilising available natural resources and providing resource-poor farmers with bigger profits, gainful employment and better dietary standards." Xuan Men suggests the new models be promoted via mass media so all farmers can apply them and that resource-poor duck farmers are given low-interest loans to do so.

The government has approved a breeding development strategy that will run to 2020, under which there will be a shift to industrial scale duck production, said Nguyen Thanh Son, deputy director of the Livestock Production Department. "The main objective is to have enclosed farm duck breeding increased from the current 20 percent to 33 percent by 2010, 49 percent by 2015, and 60 percent in 2020. "Breeders using closed farms obtain complete financial support from the state to build infrastructure facilities [in the most suitable locations] and enjoy other perks dealing with land lease times and fees," Son told the reporter Thien Ly of VNS.