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Formulating livestock diets without antibiotics: the cost issues

Feed manufacturers and users of antibiotic-free diets should be prepared to sell and buy such diets at higher prices than they were used to before.

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In most cases, any discussion regarding replacing in-feed antibiotics revolves around the topic of replacements. Yet, experiences from the European Union reveal that no single additive can fully compensate for the removal of antibiotics from pig and poultry feeds. Not only is a combination of additives is required, but also, a refocus on feed formulation with particular emphasis on ingredient selection and dietary nutrient adjustments. In my opinion, even more important is the issue of animal health and that of overall farm health status (see Figure 1), but this is beyond the scope of this article that focuses on nutritional intervention strategies.

To begin with, let’s imagine any nutritionist faced with the challenge of reformulating a diet without antibiotics. After having selected the combination of additives required, the nutritionist is looking at a computer screen facing the main interface of a feed formulation program. Our nutritionist must have an alert eye on three aspects: cost, ingredients and nutrients.

Quite often, the cost, which is rather important if the feed is to be sold, is neglected with subsequent reformulation attempts to bring it down to more “reasonable” levels. So, we shall address these three areas in the above order in three serial articles starting with cost that largely defines or rather constricts the options for the other two aspects.

Preparing for the inevitable

Antibiotics (and similar other antimicrobial agents, which are all referred to as antibiotics for simplicity’s sake) were, without the slightest doubt, very cheap. So cheap, that they became universal, allowing for a more relaxed attitude towards feed formulation principles.

But, in many parts of the world where antibiotics are already or soon will be gone, alternative options are unlikely to be as inexpensive. In fact, the more efficacious is such an alternative, the more expensive it will be, until similar products become competitively produced and marketed. But, given the fact that such a single product or combination of additives has yet to be proven as effective as most antibiotics were, alternatives will remain rather expensive for the foreseeable future.

Thus, manufacturers and users of antibiotic-free diets should be prepared to sell and buy such diets at higher prices than they were used to before. It might be that in a market where antibiotics are still allowed, antibiotic-free diets may have to be sold at a lower margin in order to establish a viable market. 

Cost-control measures

In other cases, such as in most EU countries and nowadays in the U.S., antibiotic-free diets are kept less expensive to what they should have been because of fierce competition, reluctance to buy expensive feeds and a general preference for less “efficient” diets due to widespread economic crisis. But, quality also suffers when such diets are offered at reduced prices, because margins are quite often inelastic.

In my own experience, it is always better to use a more expensive, and proper, antibiotic-free diet for a reduced period of time, rather than a less expensive diet for a longer period of time.

For example, if a medicated pre-starter was to be used, say, at 2 kg per piglet, or in for two weeks in the case of broilers, and cost for a non-medicated similar feed is deemed excessive, it is better to reduce allowance of such expensive diet to 1 kg per piglet or one week for broilers, rather than use a diet that is less expensive but used as per usual.

Although a less expensive feed will be suitable for the period towards the end of the period in question, it will cause nevertheless more damage than it will do good in the first stage. So, it is best to err towards less “quantity” rather than “less quality.”

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a three-part series.

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