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Knowledge on precision feeding boosted

Schothorst Feed Research teamed up with an agricultural college to focus more intensively on precision animal nutrition. All About Feed talked to Laura Star about this collaboration and why precision feeding is so important for today’s livestock.

Optimising animal nutrition, giving attention to both animal health and the environment, is the main focus of the new research unit (lectureship) ‘precision feeding and sustainable poultry production’. This imitative was set up by agricultural college Aeres Hogeschool Dronten and Schothorst Feed Research in the Netherlands and came into effect last September. Laura Star has been appointed as lecturer and will contribute to the content and development of education, research and knowledge transfer in the field of precision feeding.

"Our focus is to optimise nutrition even further." Photo: Ton Kastermans
"Our focus is to optimise nutrition even further." Photo: Ton Kastermans

All About Feed (AAF): What has been the incentive to put this topic in focus and to team up with Aeres?

Laura Star (LS): “Feeding livestock as close as possible on the requirement is of interest for several reasons. Firstly, feed represents the largest cost for a farmer, so feeding close to requirement might reduce feed costs. Secondly, animals are often fed on flock/herd level and safety margins in nutrients are used to make sure that all animals will have enough of each nutrient. This results in excretion of nutrients by manure, putting pressure on the environment. Thirdly, too high levels of nutrients can negatively affect the (intestinal) health of the animals. This might increase the use of antibiotics, something that we have to prevent. Knowledge about feed and nutrition and effects on costs, health and environment are therefore very important.

In addition, the implementation of sensor technology in livestock farming progresses very rapidly. Monitoring of feed intake, growth, animal health etc. will help the farmer’s management of the flock. Precision farming, and especially precision feeding, will help farmers to optimise the efficiency and profitability, and will have a positive effect on animal health, animal welfare and the environment. Schothorst Feed Research and Aeres Hogeschool Dronten like to make the next generation of people working in livestock farming aware of that. By performing innovative research we hope to teach them the latest interests in feed and nutrition.”

What is your definition of precision feeding and what are the potentials?

“In my opinion precision feeding is the practice of meeting the nutrient requirement of animals as accurately as possible in the interest of a safe, high quality and efficient production while ensuring the lowest possible load on the environment under the given conditions and taking into account the specific production objectives.

Different production objectives are mainly determined by economics, and are affected by legislative, environmental, welfare, consumer demands, animal health, availability of labour or other external factors. Besides an accurate determination of the nutrient requirement for specific production objectives in a specific phase of production, precision feeding will help to supply the necessary amount of nutrients at individual or flock level, as well as monitoring the intake. This gives opportunities to make optimal use of the animal variation within a flock, or to compensate for the variation. Therefore, rapid adaptation of the nutrient supply on farm level dealing with the variation in animals and farm conditions will improve profitability and lower the pressure on the environment. This will become a topic of global interest.”

"Nutrient requirements are constantly changing." Photo: Ton Kastermans
"Nutrient requirements are constantly changing." Photo: Ton Kastermans

Is precision feeding applicable to all kinds of livestock species?

“Precision feeding is applicable to all kinds of livestock, but in our lectureship we focus on poultry nutrition. What should be investigated is the level to which you can apply precision feeding, e.g. feeding on individual level or on flock level. But in both cases, we can feed animals more accurately to their requirement.”

Do we know a lot about precision feeding already?

“There is already a lot of knowledge on livestock nutrition. However, genetics, management, housing, welfare regulations and others are changing rapidly, making the ongoing need for knowledge necessary. This also means that, related to genetics and circumstances, the nutrient requirement will be different. This is also indicated by research described on the lower phosphorus and lower digestible lysine levels showing that we can reduce these nutrients, at least in laying hens. If this is also true for other (poultry) species is not known and should be investigated.

Estimation of the true nutrient requirement of an animal is still a key factor, and very important for precision feeding. The trials performed with the laying hens were based on pen level, not on individual bird level. An important question regarding precision feeding is if it is necessary to feed animals individually. This is one of the first things that should be explored. Next, accurate monitoring of feed intake, production performance, health status etc. should be implemented and related to nutrient requirement, digestibility and excretion. Big data will play a key role in the development of accurate monitoring systems and related adaptations that need to be made in the feed.”

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Laura Star (38) studied animal sciences at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and soon after obtained her doctorate in the poultry sector. After this, she started to work in animal feed research. For the last nine years, Star has worked as poultry researcher at Schothorst Feed Research.

What has precision feeding brought us already?

“We have already made progress in specifying feeding value systems related to age, production phase and feed intake level. The feed tables of Schothorst Feed Research are updated regularly and recommendations are based on the latest insights. For instance, we have done an experiment with phosphorus in laying hens. Reducing the retainable phosphorus level by 0.4g/kg improved the phosphorus efficiency of the laying hens by 2.6% and reduced the phosphorus excretion by 17.6% without loss in production performance or egg shell quality in birds from 36 to 90 weeks of age.

This shows that we can supply a lower retainable phosphorus level and this will strongly reduce the excretion of phosphorus. One of our latest studies gave a remarkable insight into the digestible lysine need for laying hens. In this study we fed laying hens digestible lysine levels ranging from 650mg/h/d to 880mg/h/d, with the assumption that the optimum intake would be around 800 to 820mg/h/d. However, production performance of laying hens with the lowest digestible lysine intake did not differ from any of the other treatments, indicating that 650mg/h/d might be sufficient for production performance. This result contradicts the current opinion on amino acid nutrition, and I am aware that it is based on one trial. But if true, we can supply lower amino acid levels and/or crude protein levels feeding laying hens closer to their amino acid requirement and thereby reducing the excretion of nitrogen to the environment.

The examples above are based on flock level, but there are already examples on individual level. For instance, some group house facilities for sows are equipped with a weighing system monitoring the daily individual weight of each sow. Based on weight gain or weight loss, feed intake level of the sows is adapted, and extreme condition losses are prevented.”

What will be the role of students in this collaboration?

“Together with the students we will develop new insights into precision feeding, e.g. nutrient requirements, individual versus flock feeding, implementation of precision feeding systems etc. Students will work on the research projects that we will start. This can be for their thesis, internship or as part of a course. Results of the research projects will be included in existing courses, in the Professional Master Agribusiness Development, and in a course on precision feeding that will be developed.

Schothorst Feed Research already involves students from Aeres Hogeschool Dronten in their research projects. These students can do their thesis or internship at Schothorst. Schothorst and Aeres like to have a closer collaboration in performing trials and developing education programmes regarding feed and nutrition. Through this, students will gain knowledge on the latest insights in nutrition.”

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