Six indispensable ingredients for piglet feeds

Faced with increasing commodity costs, feed producers everywhere are being tempted to use alternative ingredients. The key thing to keep in mind is that some ingredients are best left alone.

With commodity prices on the rise, the pressure to reformulate specialty piglet feeds with less expensive alternative ingredients, such as creep diets and prestarters, is stronger than ever. However, there are some feed components that should never be changed if quality is to remain stable and products continue to perform as before. To this end, a short list of indispensable ingredients is presented, along with practical steps on how to handle the issue of increasing prices, without sacrificing quality of the finished product.

1. Cooked cereals

Many high-quality piglet feeds contain one type or another of thermally processed (cooked, usually extruded) cereals. Naturally, extrusion is not an inexpensive process, and it may add up to 50-100 Euros per metric ton of cereals. Decorticated steam-flaked oats (oat groats), on the other hand, cost almost twice that of natural oats. So, the decision of what to do is clearly a difficult one. In my experience, thermal processing of maize offers little or no benefits in terms of starch digestion. In addition, maize has very low levels of polysaccharides (anti-nutritional factors present in all cereals but at different concentrations), and as such, cooking does not help much in this regard.

The case of wheat is unclear; most experts suggest cooked wheat if it is of low quality to begin with. However, such wheat should be avoided anyway. Barley, on the other hand, should be cooked if it is added at levels exceeding 5 percent to 10 percent of the diet. Of course, natural oats should be avoided completely, but, in my opinion, the extra cost for having oat groats is a wise investment. Thus, an ideal mixture of cereals could be about 50 percent raw maize, 25 percent cooked wheat, 15 percent steam-flaked oat groats, and 10 percent raw barley. Of course, the above mixture assumes maize is the least expensive cereal, and if the price difference between maize and wheat is sufficient enough, then wheat can be dropped from the mix. However, oat groats (for gut health reasons) and barley (taste) should remain, no matter the cost.

2. Sweet whey

Sweet versus acid whey is an old dilemma faced by all nutritionists. Research is scarce and ambiguous, at best. In general, based on practical experiences, good quality sweet whey will always outperform (in terms of feed intake) any type of acid whey. On the other hand, good quality acid whey will always outperform any low-quality sweet whey. Thus, the question whether to switch from sweet to acid whey, in order to reduce feed cost, depends on the quality of the sweet whey currently being used.

If it is of the highest quality (these products usually have a very pleasant taste), then switching to any other product will cause feed quality to deteriorate. Alternatively, part of the whey can be replaced by lactose (or any other simple sugar, such as sucrose, molasses, or dextrose) without any problems, assuming the protein fraction is also replaced by an equally tasty and highly digestible source of amino acids.

3. Immunoglobulins

Whether the source of immunoglobulins is animal plasma or egg-derived antibodies, switching to a less expensive source can have a dramatic negative impact on feed quality. Animal plasma is quite variable in its concentration of immunoglobulins, ranging from 8 percent to 25 percent. Thus, care should be taken when switching to a less expensive source so that the level of immunoglobulins in the feed is not reduced. In contrast, egg-derived antibodies are quite standardized in concentration and in the type of immunoglobulins they contain. Nevertheless, no two such commercial products are the same, as one may contain antibodies against only one piglet-specific pathogen while the next product may contain five or six such different immunoglobulins.

4. Fish meal

In my opinion, fish meal is not an indispensable ingredient for any piglet diet. I have stopped using fish meal in my own formulas for quite some time now. There are alternative sources of highly digestible protein, and the taste factor, often attributed to fish meal of good quality, can be replaced by other ingredients. However, there are many formulas that depend on fish meal, using up to 10 percent in the finished product. Such formulas are usually low in lactose (typical Scandinavian formulas) and contain most likely no source of immunoglobulins (typical British formulas).

When a diet relies for its performance so heavily on high quality fish meal, it will be a great misfortune to switch to a less expensive source. On the other hand, many commercial products contain a very small amount of fish meal (1 percent to 2 percent) for marketing purposes, tradition, or just to be safe (against what, one may ask?), while at the same time they contain all other (modern) ingredients and additives that have made fish meal superfluous. In such cases, switching to a less expensive source of fish meal will usually bring no big reduction in feed quality.

5. Soybeans

This is perhaps the most common ingredient that suffers from downgrading when prices start to escalate. Standard (44 percent to  48 percent crude protein) soybean meal remains the most attractive (from a financial point of view) protein source, but in the case of piglets, feeding too much of it is considered a sure recipe for digestive disorders. Thus, other forms of soybean protein are preferred, such as extruded soybeans and soy protein concentrate (or isolate). These ingredients contain less of the anti-nutritional factors to which piglets are so sensitive, but they also cost more. Thus, the basic question is how much soybean meal to use without having too many problems.

In a low-cost piglet feed, using up to 20 percent soybean meal is not unheard of (typical Eastern Europe and Russian formulas). In contrast, general consensus calls for a maximum of 5 percent in good quality products – such as those frequently found in the Americas – and up to 10 percent in second-phase type of diets. Of course, the best diets contain zero soybean meal. It should be noted that inappropriately processed extruded full-fat soybeans can be worse than good quality soybean meal, which is a typical problem throughout Europe.

6. Additives

This category of feed components is one that is constantly switching, depending on marketing, advances in technology, and prices. Usually, when feed prices increase, there is a wholesale elimination of many additives without replacing them or their activities. Of course, each additive should be justified in terms of return-on-investment before being used, but some additives have greater marketing value than nutritive power. Even in this case, removing such additives can cause a drop in sales if the change is not accompanied by customer acknowledgment.

What to do

In my experience, when ingredient prices go up, customers will watch for a drop in feed quality. Prices go up and (rarely) down, but if a good quality product loses market credibility, this is permanent. In current times, it is not unusual for customers to seek less expensive options, especially if they are pressed by cash fluidity issues. To meet such demands, dropping quality in good products should be avoided at all costs. Instead, these customers could be offered a new, less expensive version of piglet feeds, with the understanding that performance will not be the same.

In times of hardship a small drop in feed intake (and growth performance) can be acceptable, especially if pigs remain free of digestive upsets. Otherwise, customers with financial problems should be advised on the immediate financial merits of using the same high-quality products but at lower quantities, while being warned against a potential drop in future animal performance and overall profitability. Perhaps, sales volume with such customers will temporarily decrease, but your customers will remain happy and in business with you for a long time.