To address public health and environmental concerns, agriculture is being asked to remove or reduce the use of established solutions.
Although changes in feed regulation are a challenge, they offer the opportunity to rethink formulation strategies. The focus should be on promoting health and performance of animals while protecting public health and the environment. Many of the changes mean that supporting gut health is paramount, so it is important for the industry to continue evaluating solutions which do so.
Here are five of the top regulations EU nutritionists and feed manufacturers should have on their radar.
1. Antibiotic reduction
The challenge of antibiotic-free production makes gut health even more important for animal performance. Maintaining a balanced and effective microbiome is essential for health. The relationship between it and the host is complex, but there are novel opportunities for positive manipulation. Probiotics, prebiotics, botanicals and enzymatic solutions are some of those being used.
Managing gut health is key to optimizing performance in livestock production. If there is an imbalance in the gut microflora, inflammation will occur – negatively affecting gut integrity. Not only does it make the animal more susceptible to infection, it may reduce nutrient absorption and lead to digestive upset.
2. Removal of zinc oxide
Zinc oxide is added to diets for the prevention diarrhea in piglets at weaning, a problem which reduces the productivity of the herd. However, the EU had decided to ban its use at high levels from 2022, due to animal health and environmental concerns. Zinc oxide is also understood to contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance. Therefore, as discussed last month, producers need to look for alternative strategies to prevent diarrhea. Additives can be used to support gut development and the immune system, as well as positively influencing the gut microflora. This, in turn, can support pigs during challenges, helping to prevent diarrhea.
Another strategy becoming popular in continental Europe is that of fermented feed for pigs. In this process, the main raw materials – commonly wheat or barley – are fermented with a unique combination of bacteria before being added to a liquid fed ration. The acidic product is much lower in pH than commonly used wet byproducts. This assists in feed acidification, rapidly reducing the pH of the gut, as well as having probiotic activity. While this method can be used to feed pigs of all ages, it is particularly interesting for young animals and sows. Performance is improved by reducing overall days to slaughter, improving numbers born alive and piglet strength.
3. Feed hygiene
The use of formaldehyde as a feed treatment has been banned in the EU. It was a strong, cheap and very effective product, which meant feed producers may not have felt threatened by bacterial contamination issues. High-risk ingredients are those that have been crushed, ground or otherwise processed so that their natural protection has been removed, such as soy, sunflower and rapeseed meals. Many feed producers are now using organic acids to treat feed. Although they have been used for many years, it is the effects in the animal themselves that have mostly been evaluated. They now need to be evaluated in terms of their efficiency to reduce bacterial load in the feed and help prevent recontamination.
The ideal strategy would be to use a specific feed hygiene enhancer to treat all risky raw materials before they go into the silos, and then treat the complete feed again at mixing. The first treatment is for internal safety — stopping contamination coming into the mill. Then the second step addresses any recontamination, helping to produce a safe feed for the customer and the birds eating it. The plan should include a regular program of testing at points before and after treatment to check that the selected feed hygiene enhancer is effectively reducing bacterial load.
While an all-out ban on anti-coccidals was put on ice in the EU – there is still a lot of discussion above the appropriateness of their use. Coccidiostats are classed as zootechnical feed additives, therefore a veterinary prescription is not required. However, the products must be used as the level stated on their data sheet. There are two kinds of product: chemical and ionophore coccidiostats. The first has no antibacterial activity, but the second does. This is the reason why their use has come under scrutiny: They could be considered a preventative or routine antibiotic treatment. And for those claiming "no antibiotics ever," it may be contradictory. However, there are no similar drugs used in human medicine, so they aren’t contributing to resistance.
There have also been concerns about residues being found in eggs. This is one of the reasons why most laying hens will instead be vaccinated against coccidiosis. This strategy is also used in breeding birds but is not commercially viable for standard broilers – although organic producers use them. And in the U.S., a vaccine is also available for turkeys. There is no doubt that coccidiosis is a serious health concern for poultry, significantly affecting performance and welfare – so they are still considered safe and necessary drugs.
5. Ammonia emissions
Phytochemicals, organic acids, enzymes, probiotics, protein optimizers and fiber additives – have all demonstrated some level of ammonia reduction in different species. However, all these solutions need to be considered, along with formulation changes. Studies in pigs have shown that reducing dietary crude protein (CP) levels by 1% results in an 8% to 10% reduction in nitrogen excretion. However, it is not "protein" itself but the amount, proportion and digestibility/availability of the amino acids that influence performance. Any solution, therefore, needs to take into consideration nutrient balance and environmental impact. A reduction in dietary protein levels also has the effect of reducing the amount of soy used – thus improving the sustainability of production and potentially feed cost.
Many farmers, particularly those looking to put up new units, are coming up against environmental legislation. However, ammonia emissions are mostly only calculated on numbers of animals. So, while there is the potential to reduce nitrogen excretion via novel feeding strategies and additives, they may not be taken into consideration for planning applications.
However, as environmental legislation develops, there may be more scope for those taking preventative measures to be treated favorably. And membership to quality assurance schemes or as suppliers of retailers with their own environmental agenda – these strategies are worth considering.
For those regulations already in place, trials and experience are hopefully allowing the development of alternative strategies. For those in the future, time is still of the essence. Many of these changes have the potential to affect gut health, so supporting this area of research and development is key. Thinking of the environment and sustainability is also important, particularly in terms or ammonia.
Taking an integrated approach to feed hygiene is key in the fight against bacterial contamination and Salmonella control. This, along with supporting gut health, is an important step in reducing the use of antibiotics and the need for zinc oxide, helping livestock deal with disease challenges, while maintaining production efficiency.
As has already been argued, time and resources are needed to further research viable alternatives. Nutritionists need this to be able to rethink formulation strategies, which are specifically designed to support animals after these legislative changes.