Can the Sonali Chicken Cross-Breed Improve the Poultry Industry in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh's poultry sector is rapidly expanding, providing a source of protein as well as employment in the country. But how do different breeds and production systems compare in terms of benefits to the producer? This study from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) found out.
calendar icon 28 July 2015
clock icon 8 minute read
Sonali chicken-rhode island red-the poultry site
The Sonali chicken is a cross-breed of Rhode Island Red cocks (shown here) and Fayoumi hens.
Photo: Shutterstock


The contribution of the poultry sector as an important tool in global efforts to overcome malnutrition and poverty in developing countries is widely recognised.

Poultry often represents a farmer’s first investment in the livestock ladder (followed by goats or sheep and then cattle) as a way of increasing income and emerging from the poverty trap.

The share of commercial poultry production by the private sector is expanding rapidly in Bangladesh, and now accounts for 50 per cent of egg production and 60 per cent of meat production.

Bangladesh is an agriculture-based developing country in south east Asia where natural disasters are frequent. Poultry is one of the most important agricultural sub-sectors in the country and about 87 per cent of rural households rear poultry, with an average flock size of 6.9 birds.

Sonali chickens in BangladeshCurrent status of the poultry sector

The poultry sector in Bangladesh is dynamic and has potential for rapid poverty reduction through income generation and employment creation.

As commercial poultry farming gains in popularity, employment opportunities are created for rural farmers, retailers, traders, service providers, entrepreneurs, etc.

The current poultry production system in Bangladesh can be divided into four main categories:

  1. traditional rural backyard scavenging systems;
  2. semi-scavenging systems;
  3. commercial farming systems; and
  4. contract farming or integrated systems.

Rapid income growth, diversification in food demand patterns, decline in income-induced demand for rice and coarse grains, a dietary shift towards high-value foods, and rapid migration to urban areas are increasing the demand for foods of animal origin; poultry meat and eggs are acceptable protein sources for many population groups.

Production of commercial broiler and layer day-old chicks has declined because of outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), which was first identified in March 2007 and has caused irreparable losses to the poultry industry.

The Sonali breed

Between 1992 and 2001, several donors funded projects in Bangladesh, including the Smallholder Livestock Development Project and the Participatory Livestock Development Project, which involved nearly 1 million women beneficiaries. These projects emphasised the rearing of cross-bred Sonali birds and encouraged other small-scale farmers in rural areas to become involved in the poultry sector.

The Sonali is a cross-breed of Rhode Island Red cocks and Fayoumi hens and has a similar phenotypic appearance to that of local chickens; it was introduced in 1996–2000 in northern parts of Bangladesh, through these projects.

Sonali birds are well adapted to the country’s environmental conditions so require less care and attention than other breeds, making them easier for women and children to rear.

Traders can sell Sonali at higher prices than local chickens. The Sonali population has been increasing and in 2010 about 150.9 million Sonali day-old chicks were produced, representing about 35 per cent of the country’s total commercial broiler and layer production.

Small and marginal farmers started to rear Sonali birds commercially in response to the market demand for coloured birds.

Aim and study methods

This study sought to increase understanding of the technical, economic and social performance of Sonali birds and their potential for spread into other areas, as well as to assess the performance of Sonali birds compared with the performances of commercial broiler, commercial layer and local non-descript/deshi chickens.

The study was conducted in four districts of Bangladesh: Joypurhat, Mymensingh/Gazipur, Bogra and Naogaon.

Primary data were collected from a total of 500 respondents – 100 each from the Sonali semi-scavenging, Sonali intensive (meat or egg producing), commercial broiler, commercial layer and local non-descript systems – selected randomly from these districts.

How did producers run the different farms?

The average flock size was largest on Sonali intensive farms for meat production (averaging 1 442.7 birds), followed by Sonali intensive farms for egg production (1 207.5), layer farms (1 102.9), broiler farms (917.8), Sonali semi-scavenging farms (34.7) and local non-descript/deshi farms (8.1).

"The live weight of Sonali meat birds was lower than that of commercial broilers, but Sonali meat raised almost twice the price of commercial broiler meat."

Sonali intensive, commercial broiler and commercial layer birds were housed mainly with roofing and wire mesh and solid walls, and fed mainly on branded commercial poultry feed.

Semi-scavenging birds were housed in tin and bamboo structures, or sometimes mud and tin structures. These birds were fed mainly on crop by-products.

Commercial broiler birds were found to have the lowest mortality in the study areas (at 4.1 per cent). Biosecurity scores were assigned to each farm based on five groups of indicators reflecting quality of inputs, prevention of disease introduction and of transmission within the farm and among poultry units, and reduction of flock susceptibility. The study found that higher biosecurity scores did not correspond with higher profitability.

The points of lay were estimated at 21.8 weeks for Sonali intensive egg producing birds, 20.7 weeks for commercial layers, 24.7 weeks for Sonali semi-scavenging birds and 29.9 weeks for local non-descript birds.

The rearing system for local nondescript chickens was complex, and farmers were unable to record average ages for reaching maximum egg production, production amounts and ages at which production started to decline.

Economic performance

The economic performances of different types of birds revealed that the net change in inventory was positive for all enterprises in the study areas. The major cost items were human labour, feed, veterinary services, electricity and transport.

"For all production systems, improved biosecurity and proper vaccination are required to prevent and control diseases, especially highly pathogenic avian influenza."

Sonali intensive farms were larger than their commercial equivalents and Sonali semi-scavenging farms were larger than farms raising local non-descript chickens. Egg production was higher from commercial layers than Sonali birds, which are reared mainly to produce hatching eggs that raise almost twice the price of eggs from commercial layers.

On the other hand, Sonali birds under the semi-scavenging system showed better egg production than local non-descript birds.

The live weight of Sonali meat birds was lower than that of commercial broilers, but Sonali meat raised almost twice the price of commercial broiler meat.

Sonali birds reared under the semi-scavenging system were also found to have better economic returns than birds reared under the intensive system.

Relatively few farmers in the study area practised the semi-scavenging system, but those who did were economically better-off and able to provide their birds with better supervision, more supplementary feeds, better housing and greater care, allowing them to obtain better benefit-cost ratios than farmers practising intensive production.

Sonali intensive meat producing farms achieved higher net returns as well as benefit-cost ratios per bird and per batch than those of commercial broiler farms. With the same flock size, farmers rearing semi-scavenging Sonali could raise almost twice as much income of farmers rearing local non-descript birds under the traditional production system.

The study found that Sonali birds were used mainly for meat production, where they performed better than other birds in terms of adaptability and benefit-cost ratio. People also prefer Sonali chickens to indigenous birds.


Overall, Sonali birds under the semi-scavenging system were found to have better economic performance than birds reared under intensive management. However, this system requires more extension services like vaccination, technical advice etc. from government and NGOs.

The study found that raising Sonali birds, particularly for meat production under the intensive system, by rural households has good potential in supplying meat for the whole country, increasing incomes and generating employment.

It is interesting to note that the market prices of Sonali birds are far higher than those of commercial broilers. Such price incentives will encourage people to rear more Sonali birds for meat production.

Sonali meat was also found to be less affected by price fluctuations than meat from commercial broilers. Sonali layers are reared mainly as parent stock to produce hatching eggs for hatcheries, which fetch good prices. Their benefit-cost ratio is higher than that of commercial layers that produce table eggs; Sonali birds are less suitable for producing table eggs.

For all production systems, improved biosecurity and proper vaccination are required to prevent and control diseases, especially highly pathogenic avian influenza.

This study found that Sonali meat producers performed better than commercial broilers, Sonali egg producers performed better than commercial layers, and Sonali semi-scavenging birds performed better than local non-descript birds.

Sonali farming has created a value chain in Bangladesh. However challenges persist, particularly the risk of inbreeding and unplanned breeding between Sonali and Sonali and between RIR and Sonali.

Other constraints include the lower productivity of Sonali birds (both intensive and semi-scavenging), which could be addressed by implementing appropriate technology and management practices.

So far, however, stakeholders have introduced few technology packages to increase the population and productivity of Sonali birds in villages in the study districts. Action should therefore be taken to stimulate the development of the Sonali bird industry to achieve its full potential.

The study team recommended carrying out further detailed study into the productive and reproductive performance of Sonali birds in comparison with that of commercial broilers to establish the long-term sustainability of Sonali production systems.

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

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