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Nick Adams: Digital detox: Mycotoxin management meets modern technology

January 7, 2019

Innovative technology allows scientists to measure mycotoxins in feed samples like never before. The resulting data can be used by farmers to mitigate specific mycotoxins in their silage and helps ensure the safety of feed and food along the supply chain. 

The following is an edited transcript of Tom Martin's interview with Nick Adams. Click below to hear the full audio:




Tom:              Nick Adams is global manager of the Alltech® Mycotoxin Management team, and he joins us to talk about the ways in which his team is using the digital devices of the Internet of Things. He’ll explain the data they produce to study and track toxic substances produced by fungus that could travel all the way up the food chain. We thank you for being with us, Nick.


                        Nick, you work closely with the first European-based, state-of-the-art Alltech 37+® mycotoxin analytical services laboratory. Why 37+, and what goes on there at the lab?


Nick:               Tom, thanks for that. Why 37+? If we think about the concept of molds and mycotoxins, the mold is a living organism that grows in the field or grows on our feed and food ingredients as we store them. When those molds grow, they have the potential to produce mycotoxins. We know that there are four, five or six hundred or more mycotoxins that exist. If we want to understand what the real challenge is with regards to mycotoxins, one of the objectives is to measure those mycotoxins. And so, historically, that detection — that analysis — was quite a limiting factor for us; we couldn't detect those mycotoxins. With the advent of the state-of-the-art lab, as you mentioned, the instrument that we use is based on mass spectrometry. By detecting the molecular weight of the mycotoxin, we're now able to visualize lots of mycotoxins.


                        So, why 37+? Ultimately, it's the ability to measure — to visualize — lots of different mycotoxins, and because we know that each different feed ingredient might have hundreds of mycotoxins present, now, with the labs and instruments we have, we can actually measure those and visualize what potential issues there might be.


Tom:              Feed samples from across the United States, Canada and Europe have indicated high levels of mycotoxins. According to the Alltech 2017 Harvest Analysis, in fact, levels found in the U.S. corn silage are ranked extremely high. Has that trend continued in 2018?


Nick:               We'll wait to see exactly what happens with the 2018 harvest, but as we think about that 2017 harvest, when we bring in those materials, the level of risk is based on the growing season; we harvest those materials, they come with a high level of risk and, ultimately, we will feed those materials as they are.

                        What we find, particularly with silage, is that some feeds are more difficult to store because they're moist. There's a good chance that risk levels increase during the storage season because, with the presence of moisture within the feedstuff combined with the presence of oxygen, mold can proliferate. If the mold can proliferate, then, potentially, the mold can produce more mycotoxins.


                        So, yes, we are in the midst right now of feeding those 2017 grains, and when we think about that, we'll continue to do that until this 2018 harvest comes. And, at the moment, the weather is looking like it might be warmer for 2018, so we're waiting to see what impact that has on the crop growing cycle and what that means for the 2018 harvest. [Learn more about the 2018 U.S. analysis results here.]


Tom:              Is there some sort of macro-cause for this? Is there something that's happening weather-wise that is bringing together all those conditions that you cited?


Nick:               Yes. The weather has a huge impact on what molds grow in the field — the type of mold and how much of that mold grows. It's why the climate during that growing season has such a big impact. And it's why each growing season is quite different.


                        When we get to that harvest and we bring in that new season's grains, we really have to hit the reset button, because those grains will be different than the grains we've been feeding from the previous harvest. We have to then understand the risk from this new harvest, because that's essentially going to set the benchmark for what we’re going to feed for the next 12 months.


Tom:              Diagnosis and effective remediation of mycotoxin problems have been limited by the ability to accurately measure these toxic contaminants in feedstuffs. Is this problem of measurement being overcome by technological innovation?


Nick:               Yes. I mentioned a little bit before about the fact that we couldn't previously detect mycotoxins, and the advancements that we've made with the mass spectrometry-based systems have really helped us in that regard. With the 37+ labs that we have now, we are able to measure for 50 different mycotoxins. That gives us a great insight as to the challenge.


                        The other interesting thing when we think about technology is also the presence or the ability for us to have what we call a “rapid test kit.” So, using a slightly different approach, we're able to go more into the field and have a test that, within 15 to 20 minutes, can give us an idea around some of the key mycotoxins. There are five or six mycotoxins that we see on a quite regular basis in some of the feed materials we're testing. So, some of these main mycotoxins we can test for using these rapid test kits, and that helps point us in the right direction — it gives us an understanding as to the level of variation in some of these raw materials in a more real-time basis, as opposed to the 37+ testing, which gives us a much broader view but, obviously, takes it a little bit more time to do that.


Tom:              What about solutions, Nick? Has your team identified or developed any ways to address this?


Nick:               Yeah. This is an area that Alltech has been working on for many years. Ultimately, mycotoxins are consumed by the animal and they will be absorbed by the animal, and that's essentially where they cause the challenge. Within the gut initially, they can cause issues — and [also] then when they're absorbed. Anything that we can do to reduce the amount of mycotoxin that is consumed in the first place, or the amount of mycotoxin that is absorbed by the animal — those are the things that can help mitigate or reduce the challenges.


                        We work with mycotoxin absorbents, and those are products that we can put into the feed. Then, within the digestive tract of the animal, when the feed starts to be broken up and the nutrients are released, that's when the mycotoxins are also released. Having the absorbent material in there allows us to interact with those mycotoxins so that, rather than being absorbed by the animal, they're flushed through and excreted. So, these are some of the specific things, in terms of technologies, that we can add to the feed. This one is key.


                        We’re also looking at other elements of nutrition, such as vitamins — the trace mineral status. We know that mycotoxins affect the immunity of the animal, so offsetting that by looking at the mineral program can help, as well as looking at other control points outside of the animal itself. These are things that we can do with the management of the feed in the first place to reduce the production of more mycotoxins. Those little things that we work with our customers on to help them understand the different points within the feed chain — these are the things we can do to minimize the issue, and then, ultimately, when it gets to the animal, we use the absorbents as that final stage.


Tom:              To get to that information, that data on the farm-level, today’s farm is being “invaded” by all kinds of connected instruments and digital devices that make up the Internet of Things. How is that flow of data supporting and informing your mycotoxin mitigation strategies?


Nick:               Yeah, that's a great question. There's now so much data — we're being bombarded with it — but [when] used in the right way, it can help us. It can help us understand the problem more quickly and in more depth; we can find a solution more quickly and more accurately.


                        Something going on at the moment is better weather data. If we can understand better the weather during the growing cycle and the potential impact that it may have on the mold growth and mycotoxin production, then we can be ahead of the curve in terms of understanding what potential risks are coming. Now, there are weather companies that are getting more into the ag space and being able to give us better, more localized weather information for farms and fields.


                        We can also think about the concept of the analysis and, again, giving us better information on harvest analysis. If we can understand that risk, how do we then use that information in the formulation of the diet in the first place? We don’t have to wait until we see the impact on the farm. We're actually taking weather into account as we're putting together the basic nutrition for that farm. That can also be linked, then, back into the performance data coming from the farm.


                        We think about the concept of having mycotoxin analytical results and linking that to performance data from the farm. There are companies now that can take data from different sources, amalgamate that, and interpret it so that we can make decisions accordingly. So I think, in the future, we’ll see this concept whereby the mycotoxin data that we have — preharvest information on things like the weather, and the actual analytical information from the harvest analysis — that data can be fed into the systems and interpreted along with other pertinent information from the farm to help us understand, "Well, okay, what's my risk compared to other farms? Is that having a greater impact on my performance than I would like it to have?" So, without a doubt, we've had the data to a certain extent, but the fact that we can now put the data up into the cloud, where it can be accessed and turned around in real time — I think that's the key thing in allowing us to reduce that window of discovery on the farm, where it was always more reactive. Now, I think it's going to allow us to be more proactive in our approach to dealing with the problem.


Tom:              Is that farmer client given training to be able to analyze that information that's coming back? Are they able to interpret it?  


Nick:               That is such an important part of it. When we started analyzing for mycotoxins, the first question we thought about was, “Okay, we can analyze for all of these mycotoxins, but what will all of that data mean without the interpretation?” We spent a lot time on the reporting side to put something together that would give the user of that report a clear understanding as to, "These are the mycotoxins that are present. What might that mean for my flock, my herd, in terms of potential symptoms and performance implications, et cetera?" So, yes, it is important that not only do we provide the data, but that we provide the interpretation. I think that will be one of the key roles when we start to analyze these data sets together; it will be a dashboard, so we can create around that so that it can be visualized in such a way that is meaningful.


Tom:              Is it possible to have feeds and foods that are free of these mycotoxins and [are] more nutritious and can also deliver improved farm performance and better profitability?


Nick:               Without a doubt, if we can generate foods and feeds with lower levels of mycotoxins, animals thrive better. Our issue is around the fact that, as we have said, efficiency on-farm and particularly in the agronomic practices when we think about growing crops, we have turned to practices such as minimum-till farming, no-till farming, and there's less crop rotation than perhaps there used to be. These things have been good for us in many ways — but with molds and mycotoxins, not so good. So, the concept of mycotoxin-free feed when we look at our database, we might see 2, 3, 4 percent of the feed ingredients in feeds we analyze that have no detectable levels of those 50 different mycotoxins. So, conversely, 95, 96-plus percent of those feed ingredients have some level of mycotoxin present.


Tom:              The 37+ lab that you're affiliated with, is that the one located in Dunboyne?


Nick:               Yes.


Tom:              And it's one of a number of such facilities. How many of these are there, and where are they located?


Nick:               At the moment, we have two physical labs. We have the one at Alltech headquarters near Lexington, Kentucky. We have the European facility in Dunboyne [Ireland], and we work with the Chinese government in a partnership with a lab in Beijing. So, between those three facilities at the moment, they cover the globe, and samples will be sent to whichever is the most pertinent lab for that region.


Tom:              What are your near-term goals for mycotoxin management?


Nick:               I think the near-term goals for mycotoxin management — right here, right now — are to better utilize and communicate the contamination data that we are now generating in greater amounts. For a number of years now, we've conducted harvest analyses within Europe and in North America. This year, will see the first harvest analysis for Latin America. When we think about Brazil and Argentina particularly, these countries grow a lot of grain, and they export a lot of grain, so there's a lot of interest globally in some of those Latin American crops and the quality of those crops. So right here, right now, we're very focused on getting that Latin American harvest survey I’ve been running because, over the next few months, it will be critical as they go into their harvest period. And then, as I said, getting that data into a cloud-based format whereby, then, we can interpret and visualize that data far more easily, far more quickly — and, of course, that allows the communication of that data globally to our customers and our stakeholders far more rapidly.


Tom:              Nick Adams is global manager of the Alltech Mycotoxin Management team. We thank you for being with us, Nick.


Nick:               Thanks very much.




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