While Cambodia was once home to a myriad of distinctive domestic species, its tempestuous modern history mean that little attention was paid to precise, selective breeding programmes.

As a result, distinct purebred examples of any local animals are rare, with a resulting lack of specialised, high-value animals. While other programmes are focused on managing the breeding of larger mammals, like pigs and cows, one project in Takeo province is attempting to restore pure examples of Skouy chickens.

The Skuoy chicken, with its distinctive full-bodied feathers in varying shades of brown and striking red combs, holds a special place in the hearts and farms of Cambodian poultry farmers.

Its resilience and the quality of its meat make it a preferred choice in many local communities, but the lack of concentrated conservation efforts meant the breed was at risk of becoming totally diluted, and effectively extinct.

In Cambodia, small-scale poultry farming is critical for rural households, providing income and nutrition. However, these families face challenges due to low-producing chicken breeds and inefficient management practices.

Indigenous chicken breeds, which make up 84 per cent of chickens in Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, are typically raised in small numbers and have high mortality and low productivity, laying only 60 eggs annually and taking more than a year to reach market weight.

In contrast, commercial pure breeds can mature in as little as six weeks and lay around 250-270 eggs per year, according to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

An Ozzie interest

In 2022, the Australian government, through the ACIAR, implemented a programme to enhance the Skuoy chicken breed’s productivity and resilience in Cambodia.

Yem Sony, alongside his wife Nou Malay, has embarked on a remarkable journey. From managing a modest flock of just 10 chickens, he has become a cornerstone in the conservation of Skuoy chickens. HONG RAKSMEY

This initiative aimed to merge scientific research with traditional farming to uplift the livelihoods of rural farmers by improving the breed’s growth, egg production and health.

ACIAR not only provided funding, but also facilitated collaboration between international experts and Cambodian farmers.

This partnership introduced modern farming techniques, such as advanced feeding practices, vaccination schedules, biosecurity measures and artificial insemination. The project emphasised data collection and record-keeping for sustainable breeding efforts.

By developing the first generation of improved Skuoy chickens, this project has demonstrated the potential of combining scientific innovation with traditional practices to enhance agricultural productivity and resilience.

Anna Okello, ACIAR research programme manager for livestock systems, emphasises the importance of collaboration in the project, which involved livestock experts from the International Livestock Research Institute, based in Kenya.

She explains how this collaboration could lead to an improvement in the quality of life for many people, especially female smallholder farmers.

“Throughout the first year of the project’s implementation, farmers and scientists worked together to achieve the significant outcomes we are witnessing today,” she says.

This approach involves the sharing of knowledge and resources among all parties involved, promoting mutual learning.

“With the support of the Australian government, we are thrilled to see developing nations such as Cambodia and several African countries exchange knowledge and resources, accelerating their development,” adds Okello.

Ministry support

Phem Menghak, deputy chief of the Animal Genetic Laboratory at the National Animal Health and Production Research Institute (NAHPRI) – which operates under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries – explains that although the project began with just three families, once superior breeds were produced, they will market them to farmers across the country, allowing others to also benefit from the project. 

“Farmers purchase purebred chickens for rearing, and as government technicians, we will share modern techniques with chicken farmers across the Kingdom,” he says.

NAHPRI director Sothyra Tum, who leads the Cambodian research team for the project, says the breed improvement project has had a significant impact on the Cambodian livestock sub-sector.

By improving the productivity (high growth and egg production) and local climate resilience of Skuoy chickens, he says the project will help increase local production in Cambodia. 

This will help to meet the growing demand for chicken meat and eggs, while boosting the income of smallholder farmers, he explains.

“For the upcoming project cycle, I’d like to see the project scaled up to include more chicken breeders so we can generate the most productive Cambodian chicken breeds, suitable for both small- and medium-scale production systems,’ he adds.

Farming families’ experiences

Yem Sony, alongside his wife Nou Malay, has embarked on a remarkable journey. From managing a modest flock of just 10 chickens, he has become a cornerstone in the conservation of Skuoy chickens.

Their venture began in Nheng Nhorng commune’s Russey Srok village, in Kandal province’s Tram Kak district.

A significant turning point came in July 2023 when they, along with two other families, received a pivotal opportunity through the Skouy project, funded by the Australian embassy.

“Raising purebred Skuoy is different from raising mixed-species chickens, like we did in the past,” says Sony.

After receiving 1,000 chicks, Sony and his wife selected 98 breeding hens and more than 10 roosters, for their attempt to produce purebred Skuoy, hopefully within two or three generations.

“Traditional poultry has a mortality rate of 15 to 20 per cent. Through this project, which implements safety restrictions and vaccinations, our mortality rate is just under 10 per cent,” he explains.

Animal husbandry has helped the 42-year-old support his mother and grandmother, as well as enable his children to pursue a university education in Phnom Penh.

Kang Et’s story echoes a similar theme. Before the project, Et, a farmer in Ang Tasom commune’s Ang Tnaot Khang Lech village, in the same district as Sony’s, was already a poultry farmer, but the introduction of the programme has propelled his operation to new heights. 

His flock now numbers over 2,600 chickens, with the Skuoy breed proving to be more profitable, due to its faster breeding and higher hatch rate. 

“Raising Skuoy has many benefits. First of all, they are large, and produce good meat, satisfying customers in the markets,” says Et.

“Second, they grow faster and have a hatch rate of 80 to 85 per cent. Traditional hybrid varieties have a hatching rate of just 70 per cent.” He adds.

He says the Australian government’s assistance programme not only provided 1,000 chickens and breeding technology, but also covered 60 per cent of the cost of food and cages.

“As farmers, we were very happy to be invited to be a part of this project,” he adds.

Et welcomes the curiosity of the villagers who wish to pursue a career in raising chickens, especially Skuoy chickens, a breed for creating a specific national identity.

Kan Phearum runs his namesake chicken farm in Ang Tasom commune’s O’Phot village.

Her farm now serves as a distribution point for Skuoy chickens within her community, enhancing her livelihood and serving as a testament to the project’s success in empowering women.

“In the past, we were not very interested in this breed. Now, we are extremely proud of them, because they are heavier than other birds, and sell for a higher price,” she says.

Currently, Phearum’s 96 hens can produce between 40 and 50 eggs a day, and in the next two generations, the purebred hens will be more widespread.

Because they are hatching hens, they need to be impregnated so the eggs can form.

The farmers have to catch a rooster and extract its sperm, with one rooster being able to inseminate three to five hens.

Sony mentions the difficulties of caring for 1,000 chickens, a far larger flock than he has ever looked after.

He also shares his gratefulness for the participation of his wife and children, who have dedicated their time and energy to make the project a success.

They have to record the weight of eggs, chicks, feed, and the number of chickens, divided into 10 groups, over 16 weeks.

Sustainable future

Wondmeneh Esatu, project team member and a livestock genetics scientist at Kenya’s International Livestock Research Institute, emphasises the importance of capacity building to ensure the project’s long-term sustainability. 

“Our presence will not be permanent, so within the project’s duration, we must strive to empower our Cambodian counterparts, particularly the farmers. Ultimately, they will be able to carry on independently,” he says.

“Our contribution to the project consisted of sharing the knowledge and experience they have gathered from other countries,” he adds.

Esatu also expresses his confidence that the programme will sustain itself in the future, without the ongoing support of international partners.