By Sharon Oosthoek
You know the old adage, “You are what you eat”? Well, if you include meat, eggs or dairy products in your diet, you may also want to pay attention to what farm animals eat.
That’s the thinking behind the Canadian Feed Research Centre (CFRC), a research feed mill owned by the University of Saskatchewan that officially opens October 2014 in North Battleford, Sask. The CFRC’s mandate is to improve what we feed livestock — for our health as well as a better bottom line for both livestock and grain farmers — and to do it consistently. Canadian and international researchers will use the centre to study how to boost nutritional yield, minimize food pathogens and decrease the environmental impact of feed production.
Much is at stake, says Tom Scott, Research Chair in Feed Processing Technology at the University of Saskatchewan and the centre’s academic liaison. Livestock feed represents more than half the cost of producing animal protein for human consumption. And as Scott points out, even small efficiencies in the most expensive input can make a huge difference in profit for dairy, beef, pork and poultry farmers. Improving how grain is processed into animal feed can also optimize its nutritional value and boost livestock yields.
Most livestock feed is made from grains considered unsuitable for human consumption, such as the meal that remains after oil is extracted from oilseeds and the leftover grain from the production of ethanol. Improving how these ingredients are processed into animal feed can reduce costs for feed-mill operators, says Scott, and can open up new markets for grain farmers and fetch higher prices. “Every year in Canada, we grow 40 million tonnes of wheat and barley,” he says, “and on average, 20 percent is damaged due to growing or storage conditions. That becomes feed grain. If we get a frost in August, up to 70 percent of our grain can be damaged. But if we can get more value out of that grain, it increases the demand — including for export — and producers can get better prices.” Livestock feed sales are worth about $6 billion a year in Canada. The pet-food industry is worth another $5 billion. “I think we have the capacity to add value to that,” says Scott, “to increase the demand for our products.”
CFRC researchers will look at several aspects of animal feed to unlock that added value. Three important pieces of equipment — a flaking line, a hammer mill and a roller mill — will feature in experiments to reduce grain-particle size, since the smaller the particle, the greater its surface area, making it easier for livestock to digest. In addition, three different-sized feed mixers will allow researchers to experiment with additives such as prebiotics, which are specialized plant fibres that feed good gut bacteria in livestock. Good gut bacteria reduce the amount of antibiotics needed to control disease in the animals and help limit the growth of bacteria that cause food poisoning in humans.
Vacuum coaters, which apply liquid coatings to feed, will be used to investigate new ways of preserving additives, including ones that lower phytate levels in grains. A naturally occurring plant compound, phytate causes phosphorus to be excreted in the manure of poultry and pigs. When phosphorus leaches into local waterways, it can lead to oxygen-depleting algal blooms that kill fish.
Another project aims to better understand how additives such as flax or canola oils can reduce flatulence in ruminants that releases the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere.
In addition, researchers at the centre will investigate new ways to improve the quality and consistency of canola meal. Left over after crushing canola for biofuels and edible oils, this high-protein, high-fibre meal has long been an important ingredient in animal feed. But since its nutritional value can be quite variable, canola meal is often underpriced.
The CFRC is the only feed-research facility in the world with both pilot-scale and high-volume commercial processing lines, so when its researchers hit on an important innovation, they can roll it out on a commercial scale.
That’s a major consideration for Saskatchewan dairy farmer Jack Ford. Improved feed that can be quickly commercialized will, in turn, help his cows produce milk with higher levels of fat, protein and good microbes, netting him a better return on his investment.
As chair of the research committee of the Saskatchewan Milk Marketing Board, Ford has often consulted University of Saskatchewan scientists on the health and productivity of dairy herds across the province. He is now looking forward to provincial experts teaming up with international animal-feed researchers.
Ford is especially keen to see the CFRC develop feed that could meet the standards of a country such as New Zealand, which markets its dairy products around the world. New Zealand’s strict regulations on the importation of feed are designed to safeguard against potential contaminants, such as naturally occurring grain fungi. If the centre’s researchers can develop processes to reduce the risk of such contaminants to close to zero — and do it consistently — Canadian feed producers and processors could see a significant market open up.
“I really believe they are on the doorstep of something great with this centre,” says Ford. “Yes, Saskatchewan livestock producers will benefit, but this will also benefit Canada as a whole.”