A feed formula often includes aspects that have little to do with nutrition, at least as nutrition is taught at graduate school.
When you formulate a feed for your own animals – say you work for an integrator in the U.S. – you can use your experience to adjust formulas to achieve better performance or profitability. You can increase or decrease certain nutrient specifications, you can run tests to match your animals’ genetic potential, and you can incorporate laboratory analyses easily into your overall programming. After all, you only have one boss and you are feeding a certain genotype of animals, hopefully all raised under similar conditions. Thus, you have room to play with the controls to improve things – that is, if you have the experience and freedom to do so. Of course, if you mess up, it is your job to lose, but nothing is gained without risk.
Let us assume you work for a commercial feed mill. You still have one boss, but many clients. Each client is likely using an unknown number of genotypes, and the growing conditions are largely unknown to you. You can guess, based on your experience and what is going around you, but still it remains an educated guess, at best. Plus, you have your competitors who also have the same problems and push their own agenda by dictating to the market what is right and what is not. In essence, you have very limited room to formulate around a very narrow framework. So, how do you go about this?
Many, if not most, feed formulators use book values for nutrient specifications for their ingredients. Some sophisticated feed mills even have NIR technology, and others often run laboratory tests, but let’s face it: The majority of feed mills worldwide still use the good old method of fixed values. Perhaps, a committee (often of one person) reviews and adjusts these values maybe once a year. So, the feed formulator has to apply safety margins to make sure clients who test products do not find them wanting in label declared nutrient values.
Say you formulate a feed with 18% crude protein. In most cases, the actual value will be anything between 18% and 19% to make sure laboratory tests always return above 18%. If you know the ingredients well, and the way their standard deviation works, then you can narrow this safety margin. Bu, if your ingredients are widely ranging in nutrient composition, you need wider safety margins as well.
Of course, if you have confidence in the standard deviation figures, you obtain for your ingredients’ nutrient analyses, then you could use stochastic formulation. This does the same thing as above, only more accurately. Still, a feed with widely ranging ingredients will be more generous in nutrients (and cost), whereas another with more stable ingredients will be more to the point. This, however, will keep your cost fluctuating, and this is not something management can always understand or appreciate. As such, stochastic formulation remains in the realm of integrators.
Apart from changing nutrient values on a tag – something always considered negatively in the market – you must also be careful switching to alternative ingredients. Perhaps you found a new source of lactose, say permeate, instead of pure lactose. Same difference, if quality is top, but the label cannot reflect this. And if piglets scour, the vet will first check the label and ask if something changed from the previous batch. At this point, you are going to be blamed, rightly or not, until proven innocent. So, drastic (label-worthy) changes should be done carefully and often after consulting or informing significant customers.
Having worked in this area for many years, I can attest that the one thing customers of private label products want the least is a surprise – not even a pleasant one that is done to improve performance of the products at no cost to them. Sometimes, they will even object to measures to reduce cost. In my experience, once a formula is working, do not change it. If, and when, the customer is ready to market a change to their customers, then go ahead. Of course, your customers of private label will want to keep them abreast of new technologies in the market so they too remain competitive. But it should be up to them to decide which ones to adopt and which to bypass. So, feed formulation for private-label products is not open to experimentation.
Formulating for the sales force
You are the nutritionist and you know best; sales staff should follow your lead. Sales always has a say in what we are asking them to sell. If they have been selling a feed that smells like strawberries since before you were born, you cannot march in and take that flavor away from them (and their customers). I did exactly that. So, respect tradition and preferences of your customer base by listening to your own sales force. Changes should be done in unison and gradually. Even if you know something is wrong, you need to prioritize what to change and what to let go. I never got around to ever making a vitamin premix that matches my own preferences as a nutritionist. It was just never on top of my daily emergency to-do list.