By Kelly Klober
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.
No two farms are exactly the same, and no one feeding regiment will work on every farm.
We hadn’t been in the hog business for very long when we realized that some of the feed performance being advertised resulted from the misleading practice of feeding test subject the porcine equivalent of jet fuel.
The performance data was coming from very small groups of animals held in very small pens. They were essentially being continually fed a pig starter ration. They were intact males that were going to grow faster and more efficiently than the barrows and gilts that most producers grow.
There’s a big difference between maximum animal performance and optimum animal performance, and farmers must address the question of cost effectiveness when considering feed management practices. Good farm records are essential in guiding feed selection.
Livestock are fed to make a profit, not to save money. Animals need good nutrition to reach their full genetic potential.
Here in Missouri, the cost of organic feed can more than double production costs. Organic production has never been as highly valued here as in some other areas, and in many of those places the demand is plateauing or even declining. Many local egg producers are finding marketing success by using a line of feeds based on plant protein sources. These are cheaper than organic feeds, are available in a greater variety of forms and their formulations are more consistent than the limited number of organic feeds. The farmers add value to their eggs by touting their use of plant-based feeds, heritage breeds and free-range set-ups.
Every year seems to bring a new line of ration additives and performance-boosting agents. All will have at least some value, but only good recordkeeping can tell if they produce the increase in income needed to cover their costs. Nearly all consumers are at least somewhat driven by price, and the added costs of a feedstuff used to boost Omega-3 content in eggs will be lost on a great many of them.
Most livestock feeds are sold with fairly clear and concise directions for use. They are researched and formulated to achieve good rates of performance in most farm environments, although a growing number are directed toward the needs of confined animals. Departing too much from the usage instructions can cause some real problems. Two that are often brought to my attention are overfeeding scratch grains to laying stock and too quickly pulling growing pullets off of starter/grower rations. Both are generally done in the hope that doing so will save money by lowering the feed bill.
Free choice scratch grain, though less costly than layer mash, does not provide the nutrients needed to sustain a laying bird, and overconsumption of the grain quickly knocks the ration out of balance by reducing the needed daily consumption of laying mash.
Pullets should remain on a starter/grower ration until they lay their first eggs. They should then gradually be shifted over to a laying ration over a period of several days. The developing bird’s frame is forming and its ovi-tract in particular needs a nutrient-dense ration.
A GROWING BUSINESS
Livestock feeds are big business. There are national-level feed companies, regional brands, feed brands that are long gone and dearly missed (anybody remember Dixie or Supersweet?) and even special ration blends from the little elevator down the road.
As the years have passed, feed formulas and formulations have changed, the research has generally gotten better and demand still continues to affect availability. Some years ago, local feed suppliers filled their warehouses with a wide variety of sow feeds and pig starter rations. Now there may just be one or two of each and a much wider variety of poultry and cattle feeds. Even the local Walmart now carries a short line of livestock feeds.
Most swine rations and many other livestock feeds are now offered in what is called a “complete form.” These feeds are designed to contain all of the nutrients animals of a particular age or weight will need. They are processed into a form that is easy to feed — either as a meal, crumbles, pellets, cubes, blocks or tubs, and there are even a few liquids. There are also protein and vitamin/mineral supplements that can be blended with grains to form complete rations.
Feed for most livestock species now comes in meal, crumbles or pelleted forms and is sold in 50-pound bags. There may be a discount if bought in ton or larger lots. Some elevators offer custom grinding and mixing for some rations and may offer delivery in bulk or re-sacking for an additional fee. They generally require a minimum purchase of a least several hundred pounds. Some may also blend medicated rations under a veterinarian’s directive, although there may be added costs due to the time needed to clean the equipment afterward.
Pellets offer the small-scale farmer convenience and quality and the all-important element of bite-after-bite consistency. Some believe that the pelleting process and the binders used to hold the pellets together (often alfalfa) might have an adverse affect, though I was taught otherwise. The pre-grinding process should make most grains more digestible, and the heating and pressure employed in the pelleting process has been said to release another 3 to 5 percent of the nutrients contained within the ration components.
Pellets exist in many sizes, from a mini-pellet formed for poultry and rabbits, to larger pellets about three-eights of an inch in length for smaller hoofed stock, to a cube of roughly the size of a thumb. The cubes are for larger animals and are formed to be durable enough to be fed on the ground. Some of the feed sold as crumbles appears to be pellets that have been crushed. We feed pelleted laying rations as they reduce waste and keep the feed in better condition in the feeders.
TIPS FOR BUYING AND STORING FORMULATED FEEDS
Feed storage need not be elaborate as long as the feed is kept dry, fresh and protected from vermin. A 55-gallon drum will safely and securely hold 350 pounds of grain or complete feed as long as it has a tight-fitting lid. It should be placed on a good pallet or riser to keep vermin at bay.
One of the simplest cost-control measures is to buy feed as needed, on a week-to-week basis. This is the best way to average out the price highs and lows that occur throughout the year.
Comparison shop, but do not be penny wise and pound foolish. The so-called generic feeds are often based on older ration formulations and are often less complex and conducive to optimum performance. Some are also computer-formulated, meaning that their blend may vary greatly from week to week depending on which components are cheapest at the time of production.
It is good practice to buy from feed companies that have ongoing programs of research and development in the species you are raising. Seek out companies with large lines of feed options and other needs for your chosen species. A nickel a bushel more for shelled corn is more than offset by the suppliers that maintain a complete line of needed products and timely assistance.
The fresher the feed, the better the level of consumption and utilization. Do not accept feed in bags showing staining and dampness, that have been badly torn and patched, or that are dusty and covered with cobwebs from a long time in the warehouse. Likewise, reject feeds that are caked, have lots of dust, are clumping, have a bad odor, show foreign materials or are discolored.
Kelly Klober lives in Missouri and specializes in raising livestock with natural methods. He is the author of several books, including Talking Chicken and Beyond the Chicken, available at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.