The concept has been discussed among numerous business and agricultural entities for decades and now a formal study has been created to explore the feasibility of developing a processing plant and creating a market as well as to research the impact Superfeeds would have on the beef, dairy and swine industries.
Superfeeds, also known as co-products, are produced from various agricultural processes including wheat milling, ethanol production, crushing oilseeds, malting barley and processing sugar beets. Co-products include wheat midds, beet pulp, sunflower, soybean, corn and canola meal, distillers grains and pea products among others.
The theory behind the Superfeeds idea is to find the right combination of two or more co-products to improve the protein and energy content as well as the safety and shelf-life of conventional feed.
File Photo --
With below-zero temperatures and snowfall throughout much of the winter cattle have consumed above average amounts of feed. During years of short supply such as this, Superfeeds may be another option to stretch feed.
Superfeeds are high in fiber and protein and low in starch, but their nutritional content can be inconsistent. They can be used as a protein supplement for grazing animals or formulated to be a complete feed for young animals. Although they can come in a variety of forms, the most common are pellets or cakes.
While there are numerous research reports that suggest several positive benefits to using co-products, handling, transportation, storage and other issues remain roadblocks. Due to the increase of corn, barley, peas and oilseed production in the state, co-products are becoming more readily available and more research is being conducted to find ways to utilize these products by overcoming these obstacles.
Vern Anderson, an animal scientist at North Dakota State University and lead researcher on the study, said that a majority of the roughly 35 agricultural processing facilities spread across the state produce one or more of the nearly 20 co-products that are available for livestock feed, adding up to 3 million tons annually.
"I have a suitcase full of co-products that I carry around with me because people don't believe it," Anderson said. "It's not rocket science, it's just a simple idea to improve feed."
The study is being carried out with the cooperation of the Carrington Research Extension Center, Animal Sciences Department on the NDSU campus and Carrington-area businesses/Rural Economic Area Partnership Zone communities with support from several commodity organizations, state government agencies as well as individual communities and businesses throughout the state.
Funding is being provided by grants from the Agricultural Product Utilization Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development under a REAP set-aside program, N.D. Department of Agriculture, various commodity organizations and the Carrington Research Center and Animal Science Dept at NDSU.
Coming of age
While some co-products have existed for decades, it was not until the ethanol and biofuels industries exploded in the 2000s that co-products became more readily available and people began to take a closer look at their potential.
As more and more agricultural products such as corn, soybeans and others were diverted from the human food and livestock feed chain into these new technologies, it created a supply shortage which forced many livestock producers to begin to look for feed alternatives.
Although commodity markets have always fluctuated, the economic rollercoaster of events in 2007 and 2008 have forced even more producers to seriously consider cheaper alternative feed sources.
"The economic situation which most of ag finds itself now is that the (price of) products went up the elevator shaft then fell down the stairs," said J.W. Schroeder, dairy cattle researcher at NDSU. "Protein is a very expensive nutrient for cows which factors into the ration composition. It gets to be a balance of the animal's health, nature and the pocketbook, but in times like these many times it comes down to the almighty dollar."
The decline of the ethanol industry recently has helped the livestock industry overall because it has put a majority of the corn supply back in the hands of the livestock producers, said David Newman, swine researcher at NDSU. But with the continued push for alternative energy sources which is supported by the Obama administration many believe it will be short-lived.
"There will continue to be a high demand for corn and soybeans for alternative energy, so it makes sense for the ag industry to find alternative feed sources," Newman said.
Researchers from nearly every sector of the livestock industry are now getting involved in the hopes of finding the perfect combination which could bring the sector to a whole new level of proficiency.
One of the worst hit sectors of recent weeks has been the dairy industry.
Lower export numbers combined with people eating out at restaurants or ordering pizza less due to the sour economy has caused a overabundance of supply, causing prices to plummet.
"Most people don't realize how globally connected we are. Pizza is the most popular food on the planet and when global consumption is down, U.S. dairy producers suffer," said Kim Koch, feed product manager at the Northern Crop Institute. "Those most in tune with the global economy are the ones that get bit."
With milk prices hovering around the $10 mark per hundredweight, dairy operations are now feeling the bite as many are now operating in the red due to high input costs.
"There's no stability in the market, people are trying to lock in cheaper prices at the cost of farmers," Schroeder said, adding that any changes in dairy prices take at least 60 days to take effect due to regulations. He explained that what a producer gets today for milk is based on last month's price which is based on the previous month's production figures.
It is the higher nutritional content of feed that sets dairy cows apart from their beef counterparts.
"It costs more to feed dairy cows than beef cows because they eat copious amounts of high quality feed," Schroeder said. "Roughly 40 to 50 percent of their nutritional requirements need to be high quality forage which only leaves half of their diet open to other feed options."
Dairy researchers are concentrating their efforts on that other half to try to help alleviate some of the financial strain using co-products and one in particular.
"Peas have internal benefits that we don't fully understand yet," Schroeder said.
To find out, he and his colleagues at NDSU are in the middle of their first trial, feeding field peas to lactating cows. He said the trial is still in the data collecting phase so it is too early to draw any conclusions.
"Dairy cows have been called a gland with four legs because you can derive so much milk when they are productive and healthy," Schroeder said.
Although it may be tempting to cut costs, Schroeder cautions producers to be careful about cutting feed expenses because the lost profits from reduced production could exceed the cost of feed. He gave the example that for every one pound of dry matter that is reduced in a dairy cow's diet, producers will lose 2 to 2 pounds of milk.
At the Northern Crop Institute, Koch and his colleagues have been testing the effects of various co-product combinations in feed for beef cattle for more than four years.
Among the most popular co-products being used by beef cattle producers are Dry Distiller Grains with Solubles and peas, Koch said. He added that a majority of feed used is a combination of distiller grains and pea or soybean meal because of the beneficial amino acids found in the distiller grains and the protein of the meal. An interesting side note, Koch added, was that several studies have shown that beef cattle that were fed pea products produced more tender, flavorful meat.
"Peas are a North Dakota hook," Anderson said. "Anything we feed peas to seems to grow bigger, faster."
He added another reason peas are a popular ingredient for feed is due to a natural characteristic that when pressed it acts like a glue, helping the pellet to keep its form and is more resistant to breakage.
Outside of the Midwest, the closure of some ethanol plants has many producers worried about supplies because distiller grains is the largest feed supply outside the region. But producers here aren't as worried, Anderson said, because there is a wide variety of co-products that are readily available throughout the state and the Northern Plains.
For the swine industry, Newman said the Superfeeds concept is extremely valuable because of the amount of different co-products available and because everything fed to a pig is a high concentration diet, unlike beef cattle which can be put out to pasture to eat grass.
"Feeding a pig is no different than feeding a human a balanced diet is based on nutritional values, mainly amino acids," Newman said.
Corn and soybean meal make up a substantial percentage of pig feed, so when commodity prices went sky high in 2008, Newman said producers lost substantial amounts of money per animal.
While co-products have been used in swine feed for years, Newman said, there has been a lack of substantial research related to nutritional content and the effect the feed has on the animal, but with the bottom line getting even tighter, "large-scale customers want to know the scientific details of the feed," he said.
As the lead researcher of swine at NDSU, Newman has already conducted several research trials using different combinations of superfeeds including using field peas, distiller grains, sunflower and canola meal as well as barley and wheat as substitutes for corn or soybean meal.
Researchers outside the state are also looking at the potential benefits of using Superfeeds in pigs.
The Agricultural Research Service, the research arm of the United States Department of Agriculture, continues to study the effects of co-products use in feed for beef and dairy cows, swine, poultry and fish.
In a recent study conducted at the Swine Odor and Manure Management Research Unit in Ames, Iowa, three ARS researchers conducted a study looking at the effects of feeding distiller grains the residual material that results from converting corn or sorghum into ethanol to piglets.
Their initial research findings were published in the February issue of Agricultural Research, a publication of ARS.
The study revealed that after four weeks, the piglets who ingested distiller grains had increased levels of cytokines, which are chemical messengers that are essential for proper immune function, indicating a higher resistance to illness. Throughout the study, ARS researchers found that they could use up to 40 percent distiller grains mixed with corn and soy-meal feed for adult pigs and 7.5 percent for piglets because piglets tend to grow less when they have too much fiber in their diet.
For the swine industry, Newman said there are two main concerns.
"Find alternative feed stuffs that we can blend into a diet that is nutritionally sound and that's economical," Newman said.
Although a majority of producers, researchers, feed marketers and trade organizations support the idea and believe there is a potential for markets on the local, regional and international level, several roadblocks exist in the areas of transportation and handling, storage and safety, nutrition, international trade policy and internal commodity markets.
One of the initial problems with introducing new feed sources, Schroeder said, is that all livestock animals are creatures of habits and like the consistency of corn and soybeans. But, using four or five ingredients as opposed to one adds flavor and texture in addition to the extra nutrients, giving the feed more palatability, Anderson said.
Aside from the taste and texture, the nutritional inconsistency of co-products have posed a continuous problem, but newer processing technology may help even the nutritional playing field.
"The ethanol industry has rewritten its history 100 times over already and who knows how many more times they will," Newman said. "But as the process gets more refined, the plants have been able to improve the quality of the co-products."
How the co-products are processed can also greatly affect their nutritional value, Koch said. He explained that heat used in the process of creating some co-products can alter the structure of the enzymes, making them unusuable by the animal's body. On the other hand, he added, for monogastric animals such as humans and pigs, peas and soybeans have a natural anti-nutritional safeguard which prohibits proper ingestion, but when those items are heated, the structure of the enzymes change so that they are more easily absorbed by the body.
Overall, Koch said co-products will be most beneficial to ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats, because the products contain both degradable and undegradable proteins, both of which are essential to the health and diets of ruminant animals. Although the degradable and undegradable ratio is slightly different for each animal, cattle generally need 60 percent degradable protein and 40 percent undegradable protein.
Throughout his research, Anderson said he found that animals who are fed the high protein/fiber and low starch Superfeeds gained as much weight as those fed traditional feed sources.
Transportation, handling, storage and safety
Transportation and handling as well as storage and shelf-life issues continue to hamper wide-spread use.
Although gas prices are half of the record prices consumers saw at the pumps throughout the summer of 2008, transportation costs continue to be a major factor for producers contemplating a purchase. Schroeder said that although co-products are generally cheaper, if a producer has to travel further to get, the savings are negated with the cost of transportation.
Because of the various forms co-products come in depending on how they are processed handling and storing them is usually more difficult than other feeds and often requires new storage and implement equipment, which many producers are hesitant about acquiring in the present economy.
"The question producers need to ask is 'can they spread the savings out enough to make it worthwhile?' " Schroeder asked. "If the investment is greater than the value of the corn in the bin than its not economical."
The shelf life of a product is determined by the moisture properties of the feed, Anderson said, so producers need to be very aware and take the necessary precaution to avoid spoilage.
Safety issues are also a concern.
Anderson said some currently-available feed's mineral content are high in sulphur and when combined with the sulphur levels found in drinking water, it may exceed healthy levels which may result in sulphur toxicity. Even distiller grains have some sulphur, but by adding peas, wheat midds or other co-products, Anderson said, you can dilute the sulphur levels of feed, making them safer.
Marketing is another area of major concern, both on the national and international level.
On the international level, Koch said there are numerous marketing issues, such as tariff and trade agreements that need to be addressed before it would be economically viable to export co-products overseas. Regions and countries with low or no access to fiber and protein would need to be identified, he added, but already one country is taking on the opportunity. The island country of New Zealand is taking advantage of current cheap oceanfreight rates and is importing large amounts of dry distiller grains with solubles to be used as feed for dairy cattle, an approach that has produced positive results so far.
When or if the international superfeed export market picks up further is up for debate.
"It could be six months, could be tomorrow or it could be never we just don't know," Koch said.
On the national level, it is the combination of seasonal swings resulting in price volatility, competition for market share and transportation distances that pose the greatest threats.
In the current economic state, Koch said superfeeds provide greater nutrient density and are slightly less costly to producers, especially in the Midwest, because of their close proximity to the numerous ethanol plants in the region.
For those outside the region, co-products more closely follow the market, Schroeder said, so in order for them to be utilized they need to be priced correctly.
Along the same lines, Anderson said the Midwest would not see the same degree of volatility in price or supply as those in other parts of the country because regional producers have more varieties available to them on a continual basis, whereas other areas have limited options.
To address the transportation, marketing and other logistical issues, experts are in the process of developing software specifically for this research project. The combined animal and feasibility research is scheduled to be completed by June with the report being released in July or August.
Waiting for the facts to come to light, researchers sit on both sides of the fence.
"If these problems become opportunities, things have a way of working out," Schroeder said. "People will design and change if it is economically attractive, but right now people are losing money so its hard to imagine people throwing money at it."
"This is not something that is going to be phased out, but there needs to be more research done," Newman said. "It's going to be a slow process, but it will instantly reward producers."
"This will be a long-term process to become a major business entity, but if you don't try, nothing happens," Anderson said."We think we have a better feed which simplifies nutrition and increases the productivity of the animal, but the proof is when they write the check."