The potential of phytogenic feed additives

U.S. nutritionists and producers are increasingly interested in the potential animal health and performance benefits of phytogenic feed additives.


Driven by the threat of antimicrobial resistance, animal agriculture has long suspected the industry’s days of using antimicrobial growth promoters (AGPs) were numbered. In early June, the final rule of the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), which calls for the voluntary withdraw of antibiotics for growth promotion, set into motion the elimination of these medicated additives from animal feed by 2017.

Many producers report that they have reduced or eliminated their use of AGPs; however, the USDA reported that more than 32 million pounds of antibiotics were used in animal production in 2012. No exact data exists signifying what percentage of this figure was used for growth promotion.

Without knowing the long-term impact on productivity post-AGPs, producers are left with two options: do nothing or look to supplement the loss with additive alternatives.

The feed industry may partially be able to make up for the growth promotion lost, but no single feed additive — or combination of additives — currently have the ability to fully replace the gains of AGPs. While this is the consensus, U.S. nutritionists and producers are increasingly interested in the potential animal health and performance benefits of phytogenics feed additives.

In WATT Global Media’s 2015 Nutrition & Feeding Survey (Feed Management, May/June 2015), 78 percent of U.S. respondents believe in the efficacy of phytogenic feed additives as an antibiotic replacement. Twenty-three percent report using essential oils in their formulations while an additional 26 percent report that their company is exploring the option.

Though the European feed industry has been utilizing phytogenics for decades, these additives are just starting to gain traction in the United States. Fifteen years ago, when phytogenics were introduced, antibiotics reigned supreme and suppliers found it difficult to enter the market.

“Over the last couple of years, we have seen tremendous growth in phytogenic usage,” recalls Raj Murugesan, technical and marketing director of phytogenic additive producer BIOMIN Holding GmbH. “The trend is driven by those seeking to find alternative feed additives to help improve performance in the absence of AGPs.”

Focus on phytogenics

Phytogenic feed additives are additives derived from plants, such as extracts, essential oils, herbs and spices. Research suggests that phytogenics may provide feed manufacturers with a tool to improve and maintain animal performance without AGPs.

“There is no silver bullet for replacing AGPs and there is no single phytogenic that can do everything,” explains Markus Dedl, CEO of phytogenic feed additive producer Delacon. “However, combinations of phytogenic additives in animal diets can create increased growth and health. You need specific phytogenics for a specific applications and species because the requirements are different.  Different types of substances have different properties and they must be combined to get the desired effect.” (See Figure 1)

Studies suggest that synergies between different phytogenic products stimulate the animal’s immunity and digestive tract in a number of ways. The alleged benefits include:

  • Antimicrobial activity
  • Antioxidative effects
  • Supports health
  • Nutrient digestability
  • Enhanced palatability/increased feed intake
  • Improved gut function
  • Growth promotion

“Phytogenics have potential benefits — and I make sure to use the word ‘potential’ –due to inconsistency in the research,” says Joel DeRouchey, swine nutritionist, Kansas State University. “The plant extracts have been shown to potentially limit bad pathogens in the digestive system — though they’re certainly not nearly as effective as antibiotic themselves.”

Looking to EU for phytogenic know-how

Phytogenic additive suppliers feel there remains an awareness gap in the United States. “In Europe, I think it’s something that everybody knows and uses,” says Dedl. “I think many [Americans] don’t really fully understand yet what phytogenics are, what they are used for, what they can do, what they can’t do.”

Since AGPs were banned in 2006, European animal agriculture has revised its approach to production. Delacon’s Stéphane Jolain, director of global sales & marketing, explains: “Most of European strategies are oriented on the improvement of animal intestinal health through the reduction of challenges, such as farm management, feed composition and other dietary factors, but also through supporting the animals’ resistance to diseases.”

Dedl acknowledges that U.S. feeding and animal production overall vary greatly from the European model, so the adoption will not be a one-to-one transition; however, the industry should review and analyze the proven technologies used in other parts of the world and apply what will work for their operations.

Jolain suggests U.S. nutritionists and producers may find some interesting insights when they look at the European phytogenic usage; however, he urges them to “manage their expectations.”

“Alternatives to AGPs will perform differently as they have different modes of action,” Jolain explains. “It is critical that the nutritionists and formulators understand this and create diets that valorize the capability of those alternatives.”

Dedl agrees: “It will not be enough to add phytogenics; they will be part of a comprehensive solution. To replace AGPs, producers also need to optimize their management, especially regarding improvements in farm hygiene and practices. 

Phytogenics in action

Meanwhile, one large U.S. feed company has been exploring the benefits of phytogenic additives for 15 years. Purina Animal Nutrition and Delacon are strategic partners in distribution of the feed additive through Purina’s NEWtraStart swine feeds.

“Many producers we’re working with have looked for alternatives to maintain gut health and growth rates in their facilities,” says Dan Moran, director of marketing-swine, Purina Animal Nutrition. “Supplementing the ration with phytogenic feed additives is one way to feed pigs without antibiotics while maintaining performance.”

To measure the viability of switching from feed grade growth promotants to phytogenic feeds, Purina Animal Nutrition conducted research trials at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center. Results include:

  • In young pigs, research showed 6.2 percent faster gains, 2.6 percent better feed conversion and pigs weighing less than 10 lbs. at weaning improved gain by 21 percent over the control.
  • Finishing pigs were 8 lbs. heavier than the control at slaughter and demonstrated 2.4 percent better feed conversion.
  • In sows, the company reports, increased lactation feed intake by 7 percent; 35 percent reduced weight loss in lactation; and increased litter weaning weight by 7 percent.

Purina’s field trials of 150 swine producers, pigs fed diets containing phytogenic feed additives achieved positive results when compared with control groups fed a common diet with antibiotic treatment.

Beyond Purina’s research, Delacon’s Dr. Jan Dirk van der Klis reports phytogenic feed additives typically deliver a 3 to 4 percent increase in body weight gain: “This indicates a higher utilization of nutrients on the one hand and improved intestinal health on the other. When you are able to improve intestinal health, less nutrients are directed toward an immune response and it is able to utilize those nutrients more efficiently.” 

Keep an open mind, but proceed with caution

In DeRouchey’s opinion, phytogenics should and will be looked at more closely moving forward, but they will require more independent commercial research to support their claims to build confidence with U.S. producers. He also suggests company’s identify the cost-benefit before introducing any new additives.

“Just don’t overreact by losing growth promotion levels and feel like you have to do something else,” he says. “There are a lot of producers that don’t do anything. We can survive without [AGPs] but we’re going to have to focus on daily management and on the farm sanitation, biosecurity… We can do a lot more with those areas to improve our production system than trying to find a magic bullet to put in the feed. If we’re relying on that, our industry is in trouble.”

While not referring specifically to phytogenic feed additives, AFIA’s senior vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs Richard Seller urges the U.S. feed industry to be cautious with any product that claims to be an alternative to antibiotics or one making growth promotion claims.

 Being a veterinarian and nutritionist myself, it’s important to be skeptical, but most of the criticisms are assumptions that [phytogenics] will not work,” says BIOMIN’s Murugesan. “While I agree nothing will even remotely come close to [AGPs], we have to deal with the fact that they will not be available and [producers] should explore the other available options. With phytogenics, the mode of action is not that simple and very much depends on formulation as well as application. If you are looking for a straight forward answer, then yes, it’s not going to be satisfying. It’s a comfort zone [some] don’t want to leave.”

In the end, phytogenics show much potential, but prospective customers should educate themselves before adjusting their formulations.

References available upon request.

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