Date released
02 May 2024

To fully enjoy the authentic taste of Khmer red curry, Cambodians prefer to use the juicy and fatty meat of a native breed of chicken known locally as Morn Srea.

For years, Morn Srea, or the Skouy breed, has been popular among smallholder farmers in Cambodia due to its high market demand and good price. Indigenous chickens account for 84% of all chickens in Southeast Asia, including Cambodia. The problem is they lay only about 60 eggs per year, and it takes them more than a year to reach the market weight. In contrast, imported commercial breeds mature in just 6 weeks and lay about 250–270 eggs per year. 

Now, 3 Cambodian poultry farmers taking part in a unique selective breeding program have produced the first generation of improved Skouy chickens, which are reaching market weight in as few as 14 weeks.

These interim results are hugely promising for smallholder farmers who depend on their chicken flocks for their livelihoods. 

A first in genetic breeding for Southeast Asia

Since 2022, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has been leading ACIAR-funded research to tackle the challenges faced by chicken farmers in Cambodia.

It’s the first time in Southeast Asia that indigenous genetics has been used to improve a local population of native chickens, making them more resilient to the local climate and more resistant to diseases.

What also distinguishes the breeding program is the participation of 3 chicken-farming families from Takeo province. The mission is for farmers and researchers to work together to improve the breed.

‘Unlike in other countries where we're working, the unique situation here is we are working with the farmers’, said Dr Esatu Wondmeneh, a livestock genetics scientist at ILRI who oversees the project in Cambodia. ‘They will see how the chickens are better than the earlier generation.’

One of the farmers, Ms Phearom Kan, has been breeding Skouy chickens for over a decade. Facing challenges with the breed, she decided to join the project in search of solutions and to share her experiences. Her early discussions with Dr Wondmeneh resulted in the research team tailoring their research to benefit chicken farmers in Cambodia.

Woman holding baby chicks in hatchery
Ms Phearom Kan, a farmer in Takeo province, checks 1,000 one-day-old chicks provided by the project at the early stage of the breeding program.

Farmers monitor the growth and egg production of every chick

At the early stage of the project, each of the 3 farmers received 1,000 one-day-old chicks.

They also received essential training at their farms to upskill their flock management, including feeding practices, vaccination schedules, biosecurity measures, and artificial insemination techniques. The training also emphasised the importance of data collection and record-keeping practices for sustaining the breeding program.

The farmers are achieving consistent improvement in the overall quality of their flocks by monitoring body weight and egg production weekly, and selecting superior chickens for the desired traits — body weight and disease resistance.

‘A highlight of this project has been tagging each chicken at the start, allowing me to monitor their weekly growth, particularly their body weight, closely’, said Mr Sony Yem, one of the farmers.

With each generation, noticeable changes occur in the flock as it is consistently selected for the desired traits. Only 7% to 10% of the males from the entire flock and 50% of the females are selected for breeding.

One year into the project, the farmers noticed that their first generation of chickens was growing faster and was healthier than chickens fed in traditional ways.

The market prices they secured for their produce, in their community and beyond, confirmed they were on the right track.

‘Once the chickens reach market weight, I could sell a chicken for approximately A$7 each, while the eggs are sold for A$0.45. The parent chickens of the Skouy breed can be sold for around A$23’, said Ms Phearom.

Sharing the knowledge of biosecurity and feeding practices

The 3 farmers have begun sharing their new-found knowledge with fellow farmers and poultry keepers in the community. This knowledge exchange is particularly evident in areas of biosecurity and feeding practices.

Mr Menghak Phem, a researcher at the National Animal Health and Production Research Institute in Cambodia, is working directly with the farmers throughout the breeding process.

‘Upon arrival, I found that the farmers' understanding of biosecurity measures was not comprehensive. However, after completing the training program and receiving frequent follow-up and guidance from the project, the farmers have started to adopt new practices’, he said. 

Mr Menghak also noticed a change in the farmers' behaviour towards feeding chickens. ‘They now measure the feed instead of providing it without regard for quantity’, he added.

Two men looking at mobile device near chickens in hatchery.
Dr Wondmeneh and Mr Menghak inspected hens distributed to farmers in the early stages of the project.

Bringing the improved Skouy breed to all of Cambodia

The Skouy breed improvement has yet to reach its full potential. To enhance the genetics of the flock, the breeding process will involve 2 to 4 generations of selective breeding until the desired traits are achieved. At that point, the chickens are expected to achieve a body weight of about 1.5 kg within 3.5 months, which is a significant reduction from the previous time of 12 months.

‘We are aiming for an excellent genetic, better-grown chicken but keeping the same taste and look of chicken that local people want to buy. That’s the outcome we want’, said Dr Anna Okello, ACIAR Research Program Manager for Livestock Systems.

The improved Skouy breed is set for release in 2025. Following the recent mid-term project evaluation, ACIAR and partners are considering how the breeding program can be scaled up.

‘We cannot just finish this project here and walk away’, Dr Okello said. ‘Next, we need to think bigger about how we can scale it up and how we take these breeds to different parts of Cambodia to make sure that the food security is there and the livelihood of farmers is also secure.’

According to Dr Sothyra Tum, Director of the National Animal Health and Production Research Insitute, who led the Cambodian research team, ‘This [improved breed of Skouy] will help to meet the growing demand for native chicken meat and eggs in the country and boost the incomes of smallholder farmers. 

‘I’d like to see the project scaling up to have more chicken breeder farmers. It can generate the most productive Cambodian chicken breeds, suiting both small- and medium-scale production systems’, he added.

ILRI is now planning to work with Cambodia partners to scale the project to another 4 provinces after the completion of the project in early 2025.  

‘We aim to create clusters of hundreds of farmers around each nearby breeding farm’, said ILRI principal scientist Mr Tadelle Dessie. 

‘The purpose is for breeding farms to sell their produce to these clusters. This will lead to hundreds of farmers benefiting from the improvements.’

Woman being interviewed speaking with a team of journalists and reporters
During the midterm project review, the ACIAR outreach team arranged a media visit for the local press to learn about the breeding process from experts and farmers.

Sustainable development through South-South collaboration

The Skouy chicken improvement breeding project is a positive example of how developing countries can work together and learn from each other's expertise in poultry breeding, improve the lives of their people, and promote sustainable agricultural development.

‘It's an extraordinary project’, said Dr Okello. ‘The technology has been brought to Cambodia from lessons learned in Africa and several other countries. We anticipate that knowledge and resources will be exchanged between developing nations. This can promote mutual learning and accelerate their development path.’

Cambodian partners, especially farmers, play an essential role in ensuring the project's long-term sustainability beyond its lifespan. 
‘Our presence is not permanent’, Dr Wondmeneh emphasised. ‘However, within the project's duration, we should strive to empower our Cambodian counterparts, particularly the farmers. Ultimately, they will be able to carry on independently. Farmers know what they want; they are excellent breeders and committed. I have learned this from a Cambodian farmer.’

Mr Sokny Yem, one of the 3 farmers, certainly knows what he wants: ‘Upon the success of the project, I intend to raise the Skouy breed extensively and potentially become a parent stock distributor,’ he declared.

ACIAR Project: 'Asian Chicken Genetic Gains (AsCGG): A platform for testing, delivering, and improving chickens for enhanced livelihood outcomes in South-East Asia' (LS/2019/142)