When I was a kid growing up in Toronto I visited the Maritime provinces for my first, and only, time. I still remember being hit by the smell of salt water, drying cod fish and seaweeds. For almost 30 years I’ve lived on the west coast, always close to the ocean. Interestingly, the Pacific Ocean is less saline than the Atlantic and doesn’t carry the same familiar salty smell. It does, however, provide a rich ecosystem for a number of varieties of seaweeds.
People around the world have long known of the benefits of seaweed as human food, a soil fertilizer, for use in skin care products and medicine. It turns out that they are also used in animal feed and can enhance the health of your flock.
The British Columbia coast is home to more than 530 species of seaweeds, many of them in my area. Some are edible for human use, while others are more appropriate for those with a green thumb. I’m fortunate in that I live on an island, and like many of my neighbours, can scoop seaweed by the bucket load to improve the nutrient content in my garden. Sometimes I put the seaweed directly on my beds but I also let my chickens to scratch through it, breaking it up for future use. I discovered that numerous small beach hoppers (Megalorchestia sp.) come along for the ride, which my flock go crazy for. Also called sand fleas, these tiny crustaceans are high in entertainment value as well as nutrients.
Types of Seaweeds
Seaweeds, which can be used in poultry diets, are marine algae classified as green, brown, or red.
Green algae include shallow water species such as sea lettuce (Ulva) and green sting lettuce (Enteromorpha), which are often used as food. They contain chlorophyll, beta-carotene, various xanthophylls, starch, fats and oils.
Brown algae’s colour is due to the pigment fucoxanthin, which masks chlorophyll, beta-carotene, and other xanthophylls. They contain complex carbohydrates, sugars, and higher alcohols. There are 1500 to 2,000 species; the most common are kelps (Laminaria).
Red algae make up the largest group of seaweeds, with 5,000 – 6,000 species and are found throughout the world. They store their energy as starch making it useful in food products.
- Seaweed is farmed and harvested commercially for both people and animals. In Norway, seaweed meal has been produced for animal feeds since the 1960s, and is considered to have 30% of the nutrient value of grains.
- Meal is produced by drying and milling brown seaweeds. Their protein and carbohydrates aren’t digestible in non-ruminants, so the value for poultry is in their minerals and vitamins: potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, sodium, chlorine, and sulfur as well as the trace elements zinc, cobalt, chromium, molybdenum, nickel, tin, vanadium, fluorine, and iodine; vitamins B and C and tocopherols.
Benefits of Feeding Seaweed To Chickens
- Omega-3: feeding chickens seaweed meal and sardine oil together results in reduced levels of egg cholesterol and increased omega-3 fatty acid levels with no adverse effect on taste.
- Prebiotics: intact brown seaweed, as well as seaweed extracts, have been shown to promote prebiotic activity which stimulate growth and activity of beneficial microorganisms in the digestive tract.
- Improved Immune System: decreases microbial load in digestive tract.
- Calcium: Calcified seaweeds are a valuable source of calcium because the bioavailability of organic calcium is higher than inorganic forms resulting in better bone health and reduced leg weakness and lameness.
- Improved Meat Quality: Green seaweed (Enteromorpha prolifera) fed to broilers at rates of 2% to 4% increased feed intake, feed conversion ratio and average daily gain while reducing abdominal and subcutaneous fat thickness, thus improving breast meat quality.
- Egg Quality: Brown seaweed (Sargassum species) fed raw, boiled or autoclaved at levels of 3% or 6%, was beneficial to egg quality by decreasing yolk cholesterol, triglycerides and n-6 fatty acids and increasing carotene and lutein plus zeaxanthin contents. Green seaweed (E. prolifera) included at 1–3% resulted improved egg quality: increased production, increased egg weight, shell thickness and reduced cholesterol.
- Yolk Colour: Beta-carotene, violaxanthin and fucoxanthins in brown seaweed can deepen the yolk to a rich yellow or orange colour.
- Antibacterial: Sea kelp powder can reduce the presence of E. coli
I realize that most folks don’t live by the ocean and have easy access to harvesting seaweed. I’m not an online shopper but a quick scan revealed a number of sources for dried seaweeds aimed at human use, but also for livestock including chickens. ‘Boutique’ products tend to be more expensive so look for bulk buying options, including at your local feed store.
Foraging for any native species – mushrooms, medicinal plants and seaweeds – requires both basic knowledge and understanding about how and when to harvest. In my community there are folks that lead identification and foraging walks to educate the public on sustainable harvesting practices. I only collect small amounts of seaweed that have been washed ashore and are no longer alive. I also make sure that I don’t harvest during the herring spawning season (February- March) to avoid disrupting their eggs which may be attached to seaweed. Algae obtained from the ocean carries dried salt water, so a quick rinse with a hose before giving it to your flock would reduce their sodium content.
Credits: All About Feed; Jacquie Jacob (University of Kentucky); Poultry DVM; Poultry World. Featured photo: Milkwood Permaculture