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No fowl play

CNA – Daing Mohd Haidir has reared chickens on his farm in Johor for six years now. This is the first time he has experienced a chicken crisis this severe.

He used to rear up to 90,000 broilers – chickens bred specifically for meat – but is now producing 60,000 per breeding cycle.

Nationally, supply started dropping in February, and in April was 15 per cent lower than the 69 million chickens a month that Malaysia needs.

In Singapore, which gets almost all its live chickens from across the Causeway, the impact was felt when Malaysia banned the export of fresh chicken from last month.

But for Daing, the ban has “not really” helped in any way. What will instead? Are cartels behind the chicken shortage? The programme Talking Point delves into the issue.

A shortage of labour, the skyrocketing costs of chicken feed and sick, dying chickens – these are some of the challenges that farmers are facing.

Some of the challengers farmers in Malaysia are facing are shortage of labour, the skyrocketing costs of chicken feed and sick, dying chickens. PHOTO: BERNAMA

“How am I supposed to rear more chickens?” questioned Daing. He relies on migrant workers, but with the pandemic, many were sent back. Then in March, after the borders re-opened, the Malaysian government announced a 25-per-cent increase in the minimum wage, which is now MYR1,500.

With the salary increases, he cannot afford to bring in new foreign workers. One farmhand must manage 12,000 chickens, instead of 10,000 before the pandemic hit. He is now operating 10 chicken houses instead of 15.

In every breeding cycle, about 5,000 of his chickens usually end up dead as well, which is a loss of almost MYR7,000.

Chickens can experience various illnesses from bacteria such as E coli, depending on a farmer’s livestock management. But some diseases are more dangerous, like Newcastle disease, “and farmers themselves don’t know how it happens”, he said.

He was referring to the contagious and fatal viral disease affecting the respiratory, nervous and digestive systems of poultry. Recently, there has been an increased incidence of the disease in Malaysia, he noted.

Erratic weather also affects chickens, which require specific temperatures for their growth. “Sometimes it’s too hot, sometimes it can get too cold,” he said.

He covers his chicken houses with canvas when the young chickens need it; and for bigger chickens, he uses fans in hot weather. “We’ll also give them vitamins to bring down their body temperatures,” he added.

Spending more to keep them healthy, however, is nothing compared to the cost of their feed, which makes up 70 per cent of the total cost of rearing chickens.

Daing said a 50-kilogramme bag of chicken feed that previously cost MYR90 now costs MYR120, a 33-per-cent price increase over a span of two years.

If the cost of the feed goes down, then production cost comes down too, and farmers can afford to produce more chickens. Daing reckoned, however, that he can go back to producing 90,000 chickens only next year.

“I know three to four medium-scale farmers like myself, who are no longer interested in this industry because of the rising costs,” he said. “This actually causes the shortage in chicken supplies domestically.”

AUTOMATED FARM = MORE CHICKENS?

There may be a solution, however, to a couple of the farmers’ problems, namely manpower shortages and sick chickens.

Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) has been experimenting with a closed poultry house in Selangor since 2019. It is a building with a controlled environment that cost MYR750,000 to construct and where much of the chicken-rearing process is automated.

In this type of poultry house, a worker can take care of about 15,000 to 20,000 birds, compared with 10,000 birds normally in an open chicken house, said Loh Teck Chwen, who is spearheading the research facility.

Minimising the number of workers can minimise the introduction of zoonotic diseases, which can be transmitted from animals to humans and even humans to animals, noted the professor.

Temperature controls, meanwhile, will turn the fans on automatically if the house is too hot and make it comfortable for the chickens to grow well, said Loh, who is also the Director of UPM’s University Community Transformation Centre.

They take 32 to 35 days to reach their market weight, instead of 35 to 38 days for chickens in open poultry houses, he cited. That helps to save on their feed.

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