The last two decades have seen a marked expansion in Bangladesh's poultry production. While backyard methods still dominate, large-scale commercial concerns have emerged and become established, total output has expanded dramatically and per capita consumption has risen. Various factors have contributed to this growth.

Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world and land is scarce. The country's rice-based diet has traditionally been supplemented with fish, however, open water fishery has declined drastically.

Lack of grazing pasture and feed have constrained large animal production. Poultry production, on the other hand, has been supported by government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Poultry can be produced within a shorter time than large animals, which has acted as a stimulus for support from organisations trying to improve the population's diet.

Expanding output

Over the 20 years to 2005, Bangladesh's meat production grew by 54% to reach 469,000 metric tons. The share of chicken meat in total meat consumption rose from 21.5% to 24.2% over the period.

Despite this increase, growth in per capita consumption has been less impressive. Total meat consumption per head of population rose from 7.4g per day in 1990 to 8.4g in 2005, reports the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Commercial poultry production is increasingly important but its development has not been free from problems. Up to November 2007, Bangladesh had reported 287 outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, resulting in the death or destruction of close to 100,000 birds, reports the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Farmers have received compensation from the government, which has also introduced a zero tariff on poultry feed and related machinery inputs. The government has tightened hygiene measures but consumption of poultry meat and eggs dropped in response to the disease. The ongoing nature of the outbreak makes production forecasts difficult.

While a setback, the country's difficulties with the disease may act as a stimulus to adopt more modern methods with stricter hygiene and housing procedures.

Most of Bangladesh's commercial poultry farms remain small scale, less than 500 birds per batch, with large and small concerns accounting for 12% and 2%, respectively, of total poultry meat output. There might be 130 hatcheries in Bangladesh but less than 70 are fully functional.

Commercial broiler and layer production only emerged in the country in any significant form in the early 1990s. The industry is characterised by intensive production techniques, including exotic birds and use of concentrate feed, and has benefited from technical and policy support.

The farms that were set up in the early 1990s were fairly small scale, and although the number of birds per farm has been increasing, most still rear between 1,000 and 2,500 birds.

Despite growth in the organised sector, the traditional poultry sector remains the major supplier in rural areas. To help small producers gain better market access, organisational agreements have been set up allowing them to participate in collective action covering, for example, inputs, marketing and collection. These initiatives have been government and NGO-supported but success has been variable.

There are two types of commercial poultry farms in Bangladesh, independent farms, which make up the majority, and a few contract farms. Contract farming was started in the mid-1990s by Aftab Bahumukhi Farms Ltd (ABFL), a private concern. It has been viewed as successful in helping smallholders access specialised inputs and achieve outputs, hence continued government support.

While independent poultry farmers are found throughout the country, they tend to be more concentrated around Dhaka and districts linked to other large cities, including Chittagong and Khulna.

Initially, commercial production occurred around urban areas but has since spread. Only three enterprises operate formal production-marketing contracts: ABFL in Kishorenganj, BPC near Dhaka and BRAC.

Key players

ABFL practices formal contract arrangements for broiler and breeder stock production in the Kishorenganj district but several other enterprises are involved in formal input or output contracts in various parts of the country.

ABFL is a subsidiary of the Islam Group of Companies. In 1991, it established a broiler farm in Bhagalpur, in the Kishoreganj district, about 110km northeast of Dhaka. The company started contract farming as an experimental programme with 20 farmers. In 1994, it adopted vertically integrated growing programmes, providing technical and professional support to rural farmers to encourage them to take up poultry farming.

ABFL welcomed small, medium and large farms into its programme. It has developed into a vertically integrated company and established its own feedmill and hatchery. Its hatchery produces 60,000 broilers and layer parent birds, and supplies 100,000 day-old chicks per week.

The company's first feedmill was established primarily to supply balanced feed for its contract poultry farms. It was later expanded to meet feed demands nationwide. ABFL can produce at least 10,000 metric tons per month and has its own distribution channels. The firm has also established retail sales centres in Dhaka to supply eggs and poultry meat.

ABFL started contract breeder stock farming more recently. Its hatchery systems depend on imports of grandparent stock. Eggs obtained from grandparent stock are hatched and the day-old chicks are distributed to selected contract growers as breeder stock birds.

After 25 weeks, the parent stock birds lay hatchable eggs which ABFL buys back. Once hatched, they send the day-old chicks to contract and independent broiler farmers.

Unlike broiler contract farming, only relatively wealthy farmers in ABFL's area of operation can take part in the scheme because of the need for larger investment.

Unusual pioneer

One of the pioneers of the poultry industry in Bangladesh, BPC, is a sister company of Biman Bangladesh Airline Corporation and has the dubious honour of owning the farm where the first outbreak of avian influenza occurred in the country. The company was set up in 1976 and became operational in 1980.

It works with five contract growers in the Dhaka, Tangail, Manikgonj and Gazipu districts, and provides dressed chicken for the Biman Catering Centre and two sales centres in Dhaka.

BPC has entered into contract agreements with 25 farmers and batch sizes vary from 1,000 to 5,000 birds with an average of 2,500 birds.

BRAC is the largest NGO in the country, working to reduce poverty. Between 1978 and 1985, it developed a smallholder poultry model targeting poor households but many of its supply networks collapsed.

Those groups that functioned, however, it continued to support. At the beginning of this decade it started contract farming in Sherpur, supplying day-old chicks, feed and medicines on credit, and buying back broilers.

While Bangladesh is modernising and output is growing, how quickly the industry will recover from its disease difficulties remains to be seen. Contaminated egg trays and lorries have been identified as the sources of at least some of the outbreaks. A lot more modernisation may be needed if progress to date is to be protected.