It is not the tools that define the master, but good tools definitely help a good artisan perform best. The same applies to nutritionists and their feed formulation software.
Feed formulas were calculated long before computers and software came into play. In fact, today, it is highly recommended for anyone starting in feed formulation to begin without a computer using simple methods to calculate a basic formula. Such an exercise will help identify the major cornerstones of formulation, the constraints of the problem, and the balance between space (or weight), cost and nutrient concentration. So, let us start from the beginning.
This is good enough for an exercise or when only a handful of basic ingredients are available – thus no alternative choices to complicate decision-making. The main cereal and protein source, say corn and soybean meal, will be balanced on protein concentration using simple algebra, exemplified by the famous Pearson’s square that makes calculations easier and faster. Then, the rest should be included at the expense of corn (or the 10% remainder that we could have accounted for already). The order by which each ingredient is included is important and to this some experience is needed. Thus, a good mentor is not to be excluded, if possible.
Finally, formulas for ruminants are a bit more complex because they require the ration to be split into two parts (roughage and concentrates), but the principles remain the same. There are books, leaflets, and even online sources that show how a simple formula is constructed.
When we have more than one option, say for cereals, then we need to make a decision regarding which one will provide the least final cost for our formula. The same options may exist in the case of protein sources, and of course in those ingredients that supply alternative forms of energy (lipids) and proteins (amino acids), and so on. In that case, the mathematical problem becomes larger and escapes hand calculation practicability. This is not impossible, as the theory of least-cost was developed before computers were invented. The latter make things happen faster and allow for many more variables to be taken into account.
In brief, the computer through the least-cost formulation software calculates different formulas (sometimes we limit it to 1,000 iterations) that meet all specified criteria (such as ingredient and nutrient limits) and picks the least expensive. And, this is least-cost formulation. It does not make for a better formula (that is defined by the parameters entered by the nutritionist), only picks the right one at the lowest possible cost.
Feed formulation with computers was possible for all practical reasons since we had the first spreadsheets programs, such as Lotus 1-2-3, Excel or Numbers. They are still useful for exercises such as making simple formulas without the need for paper, pencil and calculator.
For Excel specifically, there is an add-on feature, called Solver, that enables least-cost formulation, something that hopefully will be introduced to other operating systems. Thus, one does not need expensive feed formulation software to formulate a few even complicated formulas once least-formulation is enabled. It does not require knowledge of programming to use the feature of Solver, but it takes some serious knowledge in handling Excel beyond the usual daily routine staff.
In code, least-cost formulation is no more than a couple of A4 pages of paper long. I recall programming my first least-cost formulation program as an undergraduate using IBM’s Fortran 95 code. It was easy enough once I had secured the code and I was even able to make modifications to allow for variable inputs, but again, it was for just a few formulas and not a commercial tool. Nevertheless, hiring a programmer to create a least-cost formulation software is not cost-prohibiting – at least the part of feed formulation.
Where things start to become cumbersome and get out of control is when one has to handle hundreds of ingredients, and an equal number of nutrients, not to mention countless formula templates, and of course finished formulas that require storage, quick retrieval, and often mass reformulation.
Database – as it is called – programming can be a nightmare and it becomes less and less responsive with increasing size. That is why most commercial nutrition professionals end up using a professional feed formulation software.
Picking the right software
Not all software systems are equal, as they differ in their functions depending whether one is a consultant, a feed mill operator, a premix manufacturer, etc. The basic module remains the same, but the added features differ based on needs, and cost can increase dramatically.
There are two other aspects in selecting the right software apart from being suitable to your needs. The first is that it should not be a simple conversion from MS-DOS, but a genuine rewrite of the code for the operating system you use. Second, there must be a demo so that you get to know first-hand whether the user interface is friendly toward you. Some require special treatment as they can be quite demanding.
These are useful for learning feed formulation, and a quick search on the internet will reveal many. Some come with a purchasing option or remain limited. Their main problem is that they lack support and contain too many bugs from incomplete development. Thus, they are prone to frequent crashes that may lead to data loss, something that cannot be bought back with money. So, use them at your own peril and make sure you save your work often.
A final word is required for this relatively recent development. It involves accessing your data (formulas) from the internet either from your own server or a dedicated host server. It might also involve formulating using internet-based software or that which is installed in your computer.
The main advantage remains the ability to share a common database among different employees of the same organization. Coordination of the database, then, becomes the responsibility of a central person – something that requires an extra qualified employee – so there is more than meets the eye in cloud services, especially when the size of services increases.
It is always advised to consult with an experienced person before committing to buying any software and, even then, to retain the right to test it for a period of time before committing to buy it. This is especially true when cost starts to climb.