Having a job that’s just chicken feed © Duncan Graham 2009
Here’s some good news for Indonesia’s 263 million chickens: Your diet is likely to improve significantly in the next few years, though longevity will decrease.
And here’s some really foul news for all those Indonesians who like fowl meals: You’ll be paying more to satisfy your taste for chicken thighs.
These are the predictions of animal nutritionist Dr Catootjie Nalle who has spent the last four years determining the foods that will make chickens rapidly plump while staying healthy and happy in their increasingly short lives.
This is no paltry matter: It takes ten kilograms of feed for a scavenging kampong chicken to put on one kilogram of meat. By comparison an intensively raised broiler in New Zealand, where Dr Catootjie has been studying for her doctorate, the ratio is 1.5 to one.
It’s much the same with the hens. The kampong birds lay about 50 eggs a year, one third of the quantity produced by farmed birds, and there’s a chick mortality rate of 50 per cent.
“Of course other factors are involved, such as breed, environment and management,” she said.
“Indonesia is also way behind other Asian countries so the opportunities to make the Indonesian poultry industry more efficient and put extra money into farmers’ pockets are huge.
“When I get back to my job (she’s a lecturer at the Kupang State Polytechnic of Agriculture) I’ll be encouraging farmers to understand the basics of nutrition and start formulating their own feed.”
One way to do this is by getting chicken meat producers, usually smallholders with a limited number of birds, to form cooperatives. Using their combined funds and buying power they could install equipment to mix and pelletise high quality feed.
Dairy farmers in several regions have long had their own cooperatives to boost milk yields through better breeding and feeding, and the introduction of new technology.
The petite Dr Catootjie, 37, admitted that her task is going to be uphill because many farmers lacked the education to comprehend the issues and that some men might be culturally reluctant to take advice from a woman.
They shouldn’t because she will be one of the best qualified nutritionists in the Indonesian poultry feed business, the youngest Ph D and the first woman to gain the qualification at her polytechnic.
She’s also tough. “Why should I say I like chickens?” she asked. “I kill them to check the effectiveness of diets. I’m a cold-blooded butcher! I only studied non-ruminants (pigs and poultry) because I’m too small to handle cattle.”
The road to the top hasn’t been easy for this exuberant high achiever from an ordinary family, originally from the tiny island of Roti. She was brilliant at school, and then at university, joining the polytechnic’s teaching staff before she graduated in animal reproduction.
“Ever since I was a child before I went to school I prayed that I could work with animals and travel. I did that every day,” she said. Her father was a cattle trader and her mother a teacher.
“My grandfather kept pushing me to get higher qualifications and go overseas, but I didn’t know how that could be done. I just didn’t have the money, but I kept praying.”
In 1999 she won a scholarship to study in Australia at Queensland University where she gained her masters degree. She also got pregnant, but her marriage failed when her husband who had converted to Christianity returned to his Muslim roots.
As a single mother with a small son Dr Catootjie thought her career had hit the wire.
Then she won a NZ government scholarship to study for her PhD at Massey University, but first had to build her already impressive English skills to new academic heights before she was allowed to start. Her grant also included a living allowance so she was able to take her son William to NZ.
“I love this country, people here have been so welcoming, much more than in Australia – I feel I really belong,” she said in the laboratory where she’s been analysing, cooking, dissecting, extracting and extruding.
“The facilities are first class. For example I can use a freeze-drier that cost NZ $60 million (Rp 390 billion); we don’t have access to this sort of research equipment in Indonesia.”
Dr Catootjie’s hopes for a more efficient Indonesian poultry industry face some major hurdles. Soy bean processing by-products are the mainstay of chicken feed, but the quality of Indonesian beans is not good.
Soy beans are also needed for human foods, such as the high-protein soybean cake tempe and the soybean curd tofu, both staples in the Indonesian diet.
The price of imports is linked to the world oil price so Indonesian farmers often find high quality beyond their pockets. Some feeds are protein-inhibitors, meaning they have limited nutritional value even though the chickens find them palatable. So the search is on for new raw materials that can be produced locally.
The lean, low-fat kampong chickens that Indonesians prefer although they’re more expensive than broilers, often have to literally scratch for a living by picking through household waste for food.
Birds in the tropics tend to eat little and often, but moving Indonesian poultry farms to more temperate zones in the mountains isn’t practicable because of high transport costs to the lowland city markets on crowded and poorly maintained roads.
In many western countries chickens are sold deep frozen. Indonesians prefer their meat fresh and don’t always have fridges. “In any case power supplies are too erratic for households to keep frozen foods,” Dr Catootjie said.
“I’d like to see Kupang becoming a centre of excellence for the poultry industry with an artificial insemination facility to introduce new genes.
“Before I left for overseas I really didn’t have enough knowledge to teach properly, now I know that I have the skills and research abilities to really teach well.
“After more than four years away from Indonesia I’ll have to make adjustments because there are so few resources. So will my son (now aged nine) who only speaks limited Indonesian.
“I’m concerned that some of my ambitions will get frustrated by the bureaucracy, but we’ll see what happens. I’m an optimist. So far my dreams have come true.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 August 2009)