Formulating Feed Diets to Improve Nutrient Uptake Reduce Environmental Footprint

May 02, 2022

Written by Paul Davis, Ph.D., the director of quality, animal food safety and education, American Feed Industry Association
I recently had the privilege of presenting to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 98th annual Agricultural Outlook Forum on the ways the feed industry is working toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions on farms. Being the son of a career USDA veterinary medical officer, a fifth-generation farmer and the first person from the American Feed Industry Association invited to present at the forum, this opportunity was indeed special. It gave me the opportunity to share how established animal nutrition concepts, as well as new feed technologies, could be part of the path to less environmental impacts from animal agriculture, if certain regulatory roadblocks are cleared.
As I gathered my thoughts for this presentation, I reflected on my former animal nutrition professors’ and mentors’ advice: do not discard established concepts in favor of flashier, yet unproven strategies. The feed industry is and will continue to be sustainable in several manners.
First, let’s look at some established concepts in animal nutrition. The ingredients that are included in a feed diet (or “ration” as we call it in the industry), how they are combined with respect to the amounts, proportions and ratios, how they are presented to the animals and how they may be enhanced with technologies, both established and novel, can increase animals’ nutrient utilization and thus decrease environmental impact.
Put simply, we endeavor for more of the feed ration to be ingested, digested and metabolized by the animal to turn into nutritious foods that people can eat.
When formulating a ration, we choose ingredients often from the creation of a primary product or process outside of the animal agriculture industry (e.g., dried distillers grains), otherwise known as coproducts, which can improve nutrient utilization. In doing so, we can divert materials destined for landfills and “upcycle” them into animal feeds, using more of what was grown or mined for food production, increasing efficiency and decreasing environmental impact.
Likewise, when ingredients with higher bioavailability are selected (e.g., selenomethionine), more of the nutrients can be utilized by the animal, lowering nutrient excretion. In some instances, animal food nutritionists and formulators can choose ingredients based on content of a specific nutrient into a specific application, an example being high-lysine corn included in a growing swine diet. Targeted inclusions such as these increase the utilization and decrease nutrient loss due to ‘over formulation.’
Further, the ways and means in which the chosen ingredients are processed and combined affect their utilization and efficiency, something which, at first blush, seems simple, such as particle size, but has a great impact on digestibility. Adhering to optimum particle sizes for ingredients for each species and livestock class can greatly reduce nutrient waste. In addition, some nutrients, minerals in particular, can have an antagonistic or binding effect on each other. Responsible, sustainable formulation accounts for these and helps ensure that antagonisms are not inherently created. I have known of feed formulations that contained molybdenum (included to help prevent copper toxicity in sheep) and added copper. This combination pretty well assures that the added copper will be excreted into the environment as a copper-thiomolybdate, something in which animal nutritionists are cognizant.
Once a ration has been formulated and compounded, its delivery and presentation to the animal also has bearing on its final efficiency of use. Nutrients from feed that are wasted prior to ingestion have no chance of being utilized; likened to spilling gasoline on the ground as you try to fill your vehicle’s fuel tank. Great care is taken to ensure on-farm feeders are adjusted properly to ensure proper feed flow, minimize waste and allow for the optimum height. Likewise, there should be adequate feeder space when self-feeding animals, and feeding frequency and amounts should allow for optimum production. It truly takes a village in animal agriculture!
Finally, the U.S. feed industry is blessed with a wide variety of feed additives that help improve nutrient utilization and production efficiency. We often take their safety and efficacy for granted. As part of being a good steward of feed resources, feed additives should be included in rations where appropriate.  There are instances of up to 10% efficiency being gained from the inclusion of one feed additive, and while there is no guarantee of a cumulative effect, at times, using multiple feed additives pays dividends. Even with the advances that we have enjoyed, it seems feed additives remain a new frontier. 
We have many talented nutritionists, veterinarians and other scientists across the U.S. working tirelessly to discover or create new efficacious feed additives to improve production and/or reduce enteric methane emissions in livestock. However, their efforts seem to reach a regulatory bottleneck in the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process and are further hampered by the inability to make label claims regarding production, except in the realm of medicated feed additives, which are regulated as drugs. Other countries, such as Brazil and some across Europe, have embraced these feed additives with environmental benefits, putting U.S. farmers and ranchers at a disadvantage globally.
In order to advance animal agriculture and continue to produce meat, milk and eggs more efficiently and sustainably, the industry desperately needs more expedient approvals of feed ingredients and a broader pathway for label claims. Imagine what the next great feed additive could do for improving production and reducing environmental impact.
For more content like this, check out the latest issue of the Cooperator.

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