If something is ‘just chicken feed’ its considered loose change, cheap, no big deal… Well, on an atoll, chicken feed is a big deal. In fact food in general is a big deal. It is hard to grow, hard to import and easily damaged by the climate.
The biggest problem facing a would-be chicken keeper on an atoll is probably the severe shortage of food. And not just for the chickens ! Because there is little by way of good soil, the land areas are often shaded by trees or crowded by buildings and importing food is so expensive there are few options for finding food. But one of the biggest impediments is that many islanders are genuinely surprised when you mention that you actually feed your chickens… Aren’t they just supposed to range free and feed themselves?
Well, yes and no. Most people keep chickens in Tuvalu in a semi-wild free range way. They have them around the house and may feed them scraps from time to time, but most scraps are kept for the pigs – which are a big deal in Polynesian culture. With chickens it is very passive farming.
And not surprisingly, that does not lead to a lot of eggs. In fact, thanks to a combination of random breeding and ‘wild farming’ chickens are very small, only produce a few eggs a year, are broody a lot of the time and are used for (not much) meat – almost incidentally. This is especially true on the capital where people rely more on imported chicken and eggs.
The Six Chix Project is designed to assist with some of the limitations to home production on atolls. We have now started to distribute chicks and fertile eggs to locals who want to keep improved chickens (layers) and we are trying out all aspects of housing, feeding and care of chickens and spreading what we learn on what works so people here can keep their own.
What do chickens need? Forage, Shellgrit and Feed
Grown chickens need between 120-150 grams of food per bird per day, depending on their size. Smaller hens, like the bantams in Tuvalu, need less than the larger breeds we are now introducing.
Small chicks need starter mash or crumbles, and its much easier to buy that than try to reproduce what they need to grow well. This currently costs around $29 per 25 kg bag in Funafuti which would be enough to feed a large number of chicks. We keep ours on baby feed until 4 months of age.
Layer mash costs $32 per 25kg bag. But for both this feed and the starter crumbles there is a time limit on use. You may be better off sharing a bag with your neighbours and renewing the feed regularly. Everything edible goes mouldy in Funafuti, and it does not take very long. Feed is probably only good for 2 months.
For laying hens, one of the components often added to feeds is shell grit for calcium for supporting the making of eggshells. Luckily, on atolls, everything in sight is organically produced shell material. The whole atoll is literally made of it. So if your chickens are standing on any kind of ground (other than a concrete slab), the sand grains around their toes will be shell grit. So that part is easy.
Chickens love to eat table scraps, grass and leafy green vegetables. We feed ours grass and the leaves of a range of fodder trees including edible hedges, drumstick (Moringa) and vegetable scraps from the Taiwan Garden. You can cut grasses and weeds for them from the sides of the road or the runway.
Free range chickens with access to pasture eat a lot of bugs and grass and probably a whole lot more. They peck at just about anything. If they are in a small area, or an urban place with little live leaf litter you will have to feed them if you want them to produce eggs. If they do have a place to range free, feed will act as a supplement.
Feed: What are the options?
Buying feed at the store
We get a very low nutrient value ‘Mill Mix’ ($16 per 30kg bag) here quite readily, but the feed seems to be mostly the scraps after producing flour and is used as a feed base for raising pigs. People heavily supplement mill mix it with scraps from their table, greens cut from the bush and fish waste (gills and guts). I have tried this on chickens, but after about 3 weeks, even supplementing it with grass, mutton and fish, egg production fell. Below we discuss how mill mix could be better used as a starting point for chickens, improving on my earlier attempts with a little help from people working in Fiji.
We used to be able to buy feed from Pacific Feeds at one or two of the local stores. One large store has decided to stop bringing it in. Some of the others bring it in from time to time, and often not the right feed for layers. Recently we have set up an agreement with another food importer willing to bring in layer mash and starter crumbles from Pacific Feeds in Fiji.
The Layer Mash has the following ingredients: Crude Protein 18%. Ingredients – Crushed wheat | MBM (whatever that is) | Fish meal | Soya bean meal | Tallow (beef fat) | Lime (for egg shells) | Vitamins | Minerals | Premix (whatever that is).
Some simple calculations for this are promising
- Cost per 25 kg bag of layer mash = $32 AUD (including freight) = 167 days of feed for 1 chicken.
- Laying rate is currently at 0.7 eggs per chicken per day.
- Using the feed rate of 150 g per chicken per day, the cost of feed for production is running at 28 cents per egg.
- For every bit of food scraps you can give, and free ranging they can do, this feed cost can be reduced – the calculation here is only if the chickens were fed 100% a commercial mash diet.
UN FAO support for using local feed resources
Trials for intensive chicken farming in Kiribati for feeding broiler and layer chickens using local feed ingredients were disappointing: “… the range of ingredients available, while adequate for the production of pig feeds, is insufficient to meet the more rigorous nutrient specifications demanded by poultry… characterized by poor growth rates, egg production and low economic returns“. The chickens tried were black Australorps and Shaver Browns, but note these were under intensive systems – in houses and without access to pasture. The main ingredients they tried were reject fish | copra meal | reef mud | green fodder | fresh coconut | swamp taro (pulaka) | and local fruits (Pandanus, Breadfruit, pawpaw or bananas) .
But the main point is they only tried commercial farming. Not backyard chickens. Luckily, there is a bit of investigation into local feeding for backyard chickens…
The Happy Chickens Project, Fiji
The folks at the Sustainable Environmental Livelihoods Farm, Fiji have been trying out a range of locally available feed materials. Here is what they found , .
Good foraging chooks can find 100% of their feed if they need to, assuming that they have quality range with lots of grass, wild bush and rotting vegetation or compost. It is not clear how much land per bird would be required, but of course that would depend on the amount and quality of the forage.
If you add coconut to that (one coconut per bird per day) then the same land area can support double or perhaps triple the bird numbers. If the coconut is defatted, then 40% of their feed can be coconut, and that would complement producing Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) at home. They recommend using the fermentation method of VCO production (not a micro-expeller unless you want to go commercial).
Using the fermentation method, 2 dozen coconuts produce about 1.75 litres of VCO, plus two gallons of vinegar and a nice lump of coconut protein (like cheese). The grating takes some time, but not more than an hour or so. 7-8 litres of hot water are added and then the coconut is squeezed, double handfuls at a time, using a loop of heavy greenhouse shade cloth and two sticks. The liquid ferments and in 24 hours the oil separates. The vinegar on the bottom can be used to preserve breadfruit and coconut meat if it is too rainy to dry them.
An ideal feed for chickens on islands is mill mix (20%), defatted coconut (40%), cassava or other starchy root (30%), and 10% greens (sweet potato leaves, Moringa tree leaves called drumstick here, wild weeds, grass clippings). Pawpaw seeds are the best dewormer- nothing else works as well and there is no need for anything more. Pawpaw also helps the chickens utilize the protein in their food. The leaves are also good for that, and can be dried and mixed into the feed; they love the fruit and skins too. Pumpkins are another crop that will grow on an atoll that is ideal for chickens.
Toxic ! What chickens should not eat
Here is a list of foods that are not good to feed to your chickens , :
- Mouldy food of any kind, including old commercial feed is a problem and could make your birds very sick. Old food is fine – like stale bread, wilted vegies, overripe fruits are OK.
- Avocados – No danger there, no avocados in Tuvalu for humans either
- Raw peanuts – Nope, none of those here !
- Green potatoes – Not cooked or raw, not skins or flesh
- Tomato, eggplant and rhubarb leaves or stalks – No rhubarb in Tuvalu
- Apple seeds – the fruit itself is fine
- Raw dried beans – they must be soaked and properly cooked. Sprouted beans (like Moong / Mung beans) are fine
- Onions – Thiosulphate in them destroys red blood cells and excessive amounts can cause jaundice or anaemia in chickens, or even death. Garlic is fine and actually beneficial.
- Chocolate, caffeine and tea bags
- Salty foods – can lead to salt poisoning
- Any foods treated with pesticide sprays
- Limited amounts only: citrus, asparagus, white rice/pasta/bread which have little nutritional value, dairy products. I do not give these to the chickens – why risk it?
Most of the time chickens will avoid things that aren’t good for them, but if food is scarce, or it is included in with other things they normally eat, they might eat things not so good for them.
 Thorne, P. Developing the use of local feed resources for pigs and poultry in Kiribati. FAO Agriculture & Consumer Protection.
 Happy Chickens Project, Fiji http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/happy-chickens-for-food-security-and-environment-1/
 Sustainable Livelihoods Farm, Fiji http://permacultureglobal.org/projects/1759-sustainable-environmental-livelihoods-farm-Fiji