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August 11, 2019

Rising Heat Making Nigerian Chicken Breeders Sweat

In the wake of a severe heatwave, popular Nigerian television host Ebuka Obi-Uchendu laments on Twitter that the brand of eggs he eats is missing from grocery shelves. On further inquiry, he is told that the suppliers of those eggs lost 5,000 of their chickens to sweltering weather - a problem that is a source of complaint among many Nigerians today.

The World Meteorological Organization predicts that 2019 will be among the globe's hottest years on record. And Nigerian farmers - such as the poultry producers who provide Obi-Uchendu's eggs - are among those feeling the heat.

In Zaria in northern Nigeria, where recent temperatures have spiked to 36C, farmer Olusola John says the severe heat has been affecting his 600 chickens. "I lost some of my birds to it," he sighs. "My colleague sold off her birds because she couldn't cope with the stress."

John dreams of building a modern-style chicken house that could minimise his heat-related losses. But such a structure could cost as much as 19 million naira ($55,000) - more than the profits that he could recoup by selling his chickens.

Bamidele Oyeyiola ... has been in the poultry business for 15 years, and like the average Nigerian farmer, he relies on the local ecosystem to sustain him. Ironically, the recent heat has turned that very ecosystem into his biggest threat.

The farm where Oyeyiola rears 3,000 breeder-broilers - which cost 6,120 naira ($17) per chicken to produce, and which are among the most expensive chickens to raise - is a large open space with two big poultry houses, a water tank, a generator and living quarters that house six farmhands. "The cost of feeding is high, the cost of drugs is high and the cost of management is also very high," Oyeyiola says.

To create ventilation and airflow in high temperatures, Oyeyiola has built poultry houses that stand 13 feet high, face the wind, and are surrounded by trees. Constructing them cost 3.6 million naira ($10,000.)

Before Oyeyiola's hens can even start laying eggs, he feeds them for one year and four months and offers them round-the-clock surveillance. While they mature, Bamidele makes no sales. And during this time, some hens die - often due to extreme heat.

One of Oyeyiola's farmhands carries a pail of water to fill the troughs for the chickens, making more than five trips to the tap and back.

When the heat is unbearable for the chickens, Oyeyiola and his workers put ice blocks in the birds' water. But they can not regulate humidity or the internal temperature of the open-air poultry house.

Just as the Nigerian government doesn't help Oyeyiola with his chickens' bedding - sawdust that must be kept dry and changed at least twice a day - he says the government isn't lifting a finger to help his business beat the heat.

"If there was technology, the water would come there automatically, [and] the birds would drink at their convenience and adequately," Oyeyiola says. "But if you decide to put water in a bucket and the water finishes, the bird will also suffer, and that will also affect our production."

Oyeyiola and his workers breathe a sigh of relief around 4pm, when temperatures start to cool.

In poultry and piggery production, high temperatures hinder yields because they can retard reproductive cycles and boost mortality, says Adekunle Adedoyin Idowu, a senior lecturer at the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta.

Idowu notes that in Nigeria, mortality rates for poultry are increasing "to the level of at least 15 percent per annum".

The loss is not as severe on farms with modern technology, where yields and profits are higher. Agricultural producers who are wealthy enough to mitigate the effects of global warming can plant more productive crops and raise more poultry and livestock. This is why it is the more affluent Nigerian farmers who are now controlling the market, says Merlin Uwalaka, an environmental economist at the University of Alberta.

Olusola says he recently had to increase the number of times he gave water to his hens - and that he now performs this chore four times a day. "The weather," he tells Al Jazeera, "is not friendly to the birds."

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