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How do we verify sustainable animal feed in ruminant production?

March 31, 2021

People interpret sustainability in different ways. Hence the uncertainty and divisiveness the topic can create in discussions. In contrast with other industries, the agri-food sector has the unique position of being a solution provider when it comes to mitigating emissions and supporting biodiversity in our local environments. Animal feed is integral to profitable and efficient dairy and beef farming. Therefore, feed production has a crucial role in how we lower the environmental impact associated with the food system.

Strengthening the links in our chain

COVID-19 has emphasized the need for such resilient food systems. Feed production capacity is directly correlated to the amount of food available for human consumption and, indeed, general food security. Alltech’s experience across 128 countries finds that sustainable and efficient feed supply chains are relevant to small-scale livestock production all the way up to some of the world’s largest integrators. A growing challenge for the feed industry is competition with humans for similar feed sources. This challenges the feed additive inclusion to improve rumen efficiency and exploration of bespoke feed ingredients that only ruminants can utilize. Sustainable animal feeding has and is being practiced. Through Alltech’s unique network of eight Alltech IFM™ (in vitro fermentation model) labs around the world, we can verify in greater detail diet efficiency and where scope exists to lower emissions and improve producer profitability. 

Can you verify that?

It is no longer sufficient to simply claim a low carbon footprint for your livestock production system or animal feed. This needs to be supported by repeatable, measurable and verifiable evidence. Alltech E-CO2 has developed the Feeds EA™ model to help feed manufacturers and producers globally measure and lower the carbon footprint of their feed. Feeds EA measures the environmental impact of feed production at the feed mill level by assessing the effects of existing compounds or blends. This is determined by calculating greenhouse gas emissions from production, cultivation, processing, energy utilization and transportation in feed manufacturing. Feeds EA™ can calculate emissions from a database of more than 300 ingredients, including raw materials, soya products, byproducts and additives.  

In reducing food waste through circular agriculture-type initiatives, we can be confident about the resilience of our food production systems to embrace more efficient resource utilization. This is exemplified in initiatives such as supplementation of byproducts to ruminants and closing nutrient loops. By lowering food loss and waste in our livestock production systems in a verifiable way, we can continue to make a strong case for the sustainable solutions our industry offers in slowing the pace of climate change.

Mitigating waste

Precision agriculture and the application to animal nutrition has been proven in recent Alltech meta-analyses on dairy (Salami et al., 2021) and beef research (Salami et al., 2020) to lower environmental impact through improved nitrogen utilization in ruminant systems. Optigen® supplementation through dairy diets was shown to:

  • Improve nitrogen utilization efficiency in dairy cattle by 4%, thanks to better nitrogen capture in the rumen.
  • Reduce manure nitrogen excretion by 12–13 g of nitrogen/cow/day.

This data suggests, for example, that the use of Optigen could reduce the annual manure nitrogen excretion from the U.S. dairy sector by an average of 51,509 metric tons of nitrogen based on the annual milk output.

Simply put, this approach is trying to provide ‘the right amount of nitrogen, at the right time, in the right place’ to help in reducing waste on farms. Results from the meta-analysis also showed that the use of Optigen in dairy diets resulted in a carbon saving of around 54 g of CO2e per kg of milk. When extrapolated to the annual milk output of the German dairy sector, for example, this would be equivalent to a carbon emission reduction of 1.8 million metric tons of CO2e. Such a carbon saving represents 16% of the entire reduction target for German agriculture by 2030.

A simulation analysis based on the results of the meta-analysis indicated that feeding Optigen to 1,000 dairy cows would:

  • Increase income over feed costs by $18,000.
  • Reduce the carbon footprint of the herd by 647 metric tons of CO2e. That carbon reduction is the same as taking 424 cars off the road or 436 houses’ use of electricity.

"Dairy profitability"

The meta-analysis on beef research highlighted how the partial replacement of vegetable protein with Optigen exhibited a consistent improvement in the liveweight gain and feed efficiency of beef cattle. The many positive effects included an average higher liveweight gain (by 8%) and better feed efficiency (by 8%), with the inclusion of corn silage enhancing the effects of Optigen.

A simulation analysis based on these benefits indicated that feeding Optigen to gain 440 lbs. in 1,000 cattle would:

  • Reduce the time to slaughter by 9 days.
  • Reduce feed costs by $18,000.
  • Support a reduction in the carbon footprint of the beef unit by 111 tons of CO2e. That carbon saving is the same as taking 73 cars off the road or 75 houses’ use of electricity.

"Beef profitability"

Sustainability does not have to come at a cost

Lowering the environmental impact from animal feed does not imply lowering revenues for food system stakeholders. From large dairy farms in the U.S. to the 300 million dairy cows predominantly spread across small farms in India, Alltech has firsthand experience of how sustainable solutions have become the non-negotiable in animal nutrition. Profitable farming understandably leads this agenda. With animal feed typically representing the most significant variable cost in producing animal products, there is a business responsibility to ensure we minimize food loss and waste.

Animal feed production has humbly underpinned the food system that has enabled global population growth over the last 150 years. It is now time to recognize this unique contribution and how it also serves in discovering and implementing technologies that lower the environmental impact of animal products and support the circular economy.

Considering sustainability efforts need to make both environmental and economic sense, don’t miss our related blog 6 tips to stretch protein supplies and lower your feed costs.


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