It takes a heart to raise a chicken

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Vietnam 's famous Dong Ho paintings from the northern province of Bac Ninh often depict a kind of chicken considered a cultural and spiritual symbol of the area.


But raising the chicken is a painstaking job, said local people in Lac Tho, the village of Dong Ho paintings.


The Ho chicken is among 20 most precious poultry species in Vietnam which needs special protection or it will be extinct, according to a research project at the Vietnam National Institute of Husbandry, the Tien Phong said in a report September 2.


The appreciation for the chicken is so big in Vietnam that the country organizes an annual pageant for the bird on the 10th day of the second lunar month.


At the competition, Ho chickens are assessed for their measurements, their weight, voice, and walk.


Most people know the Ho chicken is the heaviest kind of chicken, with a mature one weighing six to seven kilograms. Its eggs are also bigger and rounder than normal ones.


But Khuc Dinh Tinh, a 78-year-old local, says the bird is worth much more than that.


Tinh, who has spent 50 years of his life raising the chicken, knows all of its characteristics, favorite foods and regular diseases.


He said that a typical male Ho chicken has black feathers all over his body, a head as big as an adult man's fist, a spreading tail, and high legs with bumps that look like soya beans.


A female Ho chicken has similar beauty standards but the feathers should be slightly white.


The Ho chicken is an inevitable part of local death anniversary commemorations and Tet offerings throughout the village. All families in the village use the bird at such events, no matter how poor they are.


The chicken is highly symbolic but also its meat is famously tasty and fragrant.


In the past, the Ho chicken has been used as a special offering to kings. Now each can sell for more than VND1 million (US$48), and supplies always run short during festive times.


However, local farmers say the price is not great considering how much time and labor it takes to breed a Ho chicken properly.


Tinh said that raising Ho chickens is hard as the bird is a dainty eater and has a poor immune system.


It must not be fed with mash produced industrially.


The chicken's favorite foods are corn and unhusked rice, but it requires a lot of work to prepare the foods.


Farmers need to soak the seeds in warm water over a night to soften the husks. A better way to process corn is to grind it and mix with mash collected from smashing rice manually.


More careful farmers improve the chicken's meal quality with snails, frogs and grasshoppers.


Male and female Ho chickens are raised separately. A male chicken is only brought in a couple of hours before the farmer wants two chickens to mate.


Immediately after the mating, the male chicken will be taken out so it will not mate with another female chicken.


With big female chickens, the farmer has to make a cage so that the male chicken doesn't have to chase after the female. The cage is furnished with a straw nest to guarantee the quality of the mating.


Careful breeding can ensure that good genes are preserved and at least 90 percent of the eggs hatch healthily, Tinh said.


As the chickens are big and clumsy, the farmers have to keep a close eye on them in case they step on and break their own eggs.


During the first week, baby Ho chickens are fed with sesame to form oil in their stomach for better digestion.


Nguyen The Tra, another local, said "the breeding is complicated and few people have the time and patience to do it properly.


"That explains why the species hasn't spread very far."


In an effort to encourage local people to continue the tradition, Lac Tho village formed a Ho chicken association 20 years ago. The association now has nearly 20 members taking care of hundreds of chickens.


Many of the raisers are still enthusiastic as they wish to preserve precious genes for the country.


Since 1989, the Vietnam National Institute of Husbandry has also helped the association feed and treat diseased chicken.


Tra said the support is not much, only around VND5 million a year, but it is an encouragement for the villagers to keep the old tradition alive.


"People really need a heart to raise Ho chickens," he said. "If they just think about money, we would surely have lost purebred Ho chickens a long time ago."


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