Expert opinion

Feeding Olympic athletes

It seems to be one of the main challenges for today’s nutritionists: how to feed the high performing farm animal?

Whether it is the pressure to produce over 30 piglets per year or milk over 30 litres per day, the need to have high quality diets with enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals remains the same for all food producing animals that produce at the top of their game.

The high performing sow

This was also discussed at a dedicated event at the recently held IPPE in Atlanta, US where experts discussed how to maximise a sow’s lifetime productivity with nutrition and how we can influence piglet and sow gut health. Eric van Heugten from North Carolina State University in the US presented some of the latest insights on high efficiency nutrition for maximal lifetime production. “The modern sow has more requirements for nutrients. Especially when high performing sows experience heat stress or are in lactation for example”, he explained. He further addressed the fact that a lactating sow produces almost as much milk as a high producing dairy cow, translated to bodyweight equivalent. This means that the sows require high energy diets. Mr Van Heugten touched on a few studies that looked into the supplementation of lipids (level and type) during lactation on subsequent reproductive performance. The inclusion of linoleic acid at 3.3% inclusion rate showed to have a positive effect on total pigs born and pigs born alive. This is a nice and practical example to adjust the diets (or to include new types of feed ingredients) to better cater to the needs of the high producing sow.

The high performing cow

Also dairy cows are true athletes. A cow producing around 45 kg of milk per day needs 4 times as much total energy as she needs for her maintenance requirement alone. At the same time, the diets have adjusted as well to meet the high demands. Today’s cows are therefore much more efficient in using feed energy than it was for the cow of 100 years ago consuming a diet of mostly forage. I recently talked to Wilfried van Straalen, researcher at Schothorst Feed Research (SFR) in the Netherlands, about feeding the high producing cows. To make better choices on what to feed the high producing cow, SFR has developed the E-dairy model that describes all steps in rumen fermentation, intestinal digestion and fermentation and metabolism. The model can help in making rumen fermentation more efficient and in turn prevent the onset of certain metabolic disorders like rumen acidosis. The latter is of particular interest in high performing cows in their transition phase. “Cows producing up to 30 litres per day can rely on the normal rumen fermentation, but animals that produced more than the 30 litres per cow have higher demands and should also be fed with specific quality of rumen-undegradable protein, starch and fat feed ingredients to reduce the risk for ketosis,” van Straalen. I therefore think that in the coming years, the focus on rumen health will be increasing. We already see this for example reflected in the amount of research that has been dedicated to rumen undegradable amino acids. This is of interest because we tend to include less protein in the diet of high performing dairy cows. We also see a growing interest in the use of choline or vitamin (B) products in dairy cow diets. Especially B vitamins are good for high performing dairy cows as this supports the liver function.

Further optimisation

Olympic athletes tend to eat around 3,000-4,000 calories a day to perform at the top of their game. The role of nutrition in human sports has never been so high on the agenda as today and there are a few very good ambassadors out there to promote these high-performing diets. Dutch sprinter Dafne Schippers for example has a collaboration with with Dutch dairy processor Campina and with that an ambassador for dairy products in the diet for athletes. She is convinced that dairy products and sport are inextricably linked. Feeding today’s food producing animals is like formulating a diet for Olympic athletes: a challenging task, but one that can certainly be achieved, especially with the increased knowledge of animal nutrition and the models used by nutritionists. I am looking forward to the coming years to see how the dairy and swine industry further optimise themselves to serve the high performing animals even better. Oh, and I am also looking to the next Olympic Games in 2020 in Tokyo of course. Another 1.5 years to go to optimise the diets. Go Dafne!