A Closer Look at Feed Additives

Published on Tue, 03/24/2020 - 8:27am

 A Closer Look at Feed Additives.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

 It seems no one is unopinionated when it comes to the topic of feed additives. Some dairy producers might cringe a bit thinking of the farm to farm sales rep peddling a bag of snake oil like elixirs. Others are dedicated repeat customers and cite proven results in their animals and milk tank. No matter where you may find yourself along this spectrum, there’s plenty of room for critique and inquisition. Nutrition is the foundational pillar of a herd’s success or failure, and the well-being of the farm demands critical thinking, asking the hard questions, cutting costs where it doesn’t work and perhaps putting up a bit more if it will pay off down the road. For some farmers, feed additives are a viable option subject to all these.

The basics
If you were to ask someone in the industry randomly “what is a feed additive?” how well do you think they’d be able to answer? The terminology is very broad and applicable to a plethora of products. Dr. Michael F. Hutjens, Professor of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois, is often cited for his literature in terms of dairy feed additives and their impact. In his paper, Feed Additives in Dairy Nutrition: An Industry and Farm Perspective he defines additives “as a group of feed ingredients that can cause a desired animal response in a non-role such as pH shift, growth, or metabolic modifier.”

Their significance is important, he notes, because feed costs are the largest input on a dairy, estimated anywhere from 35 to well over 50 percent of total operating costs. In and of themselves, additives cannot guarantee enhanced production or profit. But if used correctly in the right situation, they may be the right tools to help achieve those end goals.

In one of his papers, Hutjens outlined the “4 Rs” to determine if a feed additive should be used. These are “anticipated response, economic return, available research, and field responses.” He uses response to refer to the expected changes the user would anticipate when a feed additive is included. Common ones include increased milk yield, increased dry matter intake, reduced heat stress, improved health, increase digestion in the gut, feed or growth efficience, and creating a more stable rumen environment. Return is the profitability of an additive, one of his guidelines being a two dollar or more return per each dollar invested – this is enough to cover non-responsive cows and field conditions minimizing epected response. Research is the peer-reviewed studies using a certain product, and the results are what is obtained on the individual farms in terms of economic payoff.

What’s what
Feed additives fall into many categories and purposes. There are also always new products on the market attempting to create categories of their own, but here’s a rundown on the basic what is what in the marketplace.

Buffers are products that reduce rumen acidity, typically seen in high milk production diets.

Anionic salts and similar products are the opposite side of the coin, they cause the diet to be more acidic to increase blood calcium levels.

The B vitamins are common, including niacin and biotin for their important roles in health and metabolism.

Rumen-Protected Choline provides supplemental choline, especially during the transition period, that is not degraded by rumen bacteria. It is widely believed lack of this vitamin is responsible for transition and metabolic diseases.

Ionophores, known by the brand names Rumensin and Bovatec, increase cell acidity and growth inhibition. Less rumen energy is wasted and rumen pH increases making the animals more efficiently use their energy.

Direct-Fed Microbials, or probiotics, are live bacteria that help improve the natural fauna in the animal’s gut. These may also produce other compounds as well with numerous benefits.

Enzymes are catalysts that help the animal better digest things like fiber, starch and protein.

There are plenty of health and immunity related additives being added to the market. Notably, there are products available to help heat-stressed animals. There are also additives for better herd efficiency and milk quality, such as feeding ß-carotene.

Show me the research
To evaluate the true value of feed additives, Hutjens offers the “7 Rs” – these are the first four plus reliability, repeatability, and relativity - reflecting the research and situation on what is being feed. He cautions against “Me Too Syndrome” where products with only limited proven research and results but are marketed piggy-backing on the concept of another product identical to the industry-base standard. The feed additive market is saturated with such examples.

As this is a voluntary addition to your feed cost, this is one area where it is worth relying on outside sources instead of just the manufacturers. Once you’ve narrowed down what you’d like your feed additive to do for you, the next step is to evaluate products with a scientific eye. See what, if any, university trials or other controlled studies have been done specifically comparing cows fed a diet with said product and ones without. Besides seeing if the impact was substantial, these studies can also tell you small hints like if certain feeding procedures involved additional labor or had a toll on certain milk components. Chances are, your nutritionist and other associated industry professionals may have their own thoughts and experiences that are also of value.

Once you’ve included an additive into your diet, you can do a little bit of your own research and evaluate if this is really working in your specific herd. Keep the records on what you’re hoping to change, before and after additive inclusion. Give it some time to see if the desired change takes place, and if so, scrutinize the impact it has had on your bottom line. Are you getting a return in a boosted milk check or fewer incidences of metabolic diseases?

This is perhaps the most significant factor in deciding to stick with an additive – does this product work on your farm, in your herd, with your management system worth your time, your effort and your money. All the research and testimonials in the world won’t mean a thing if an additive doesn’t help you reach your goals or improve your dairy. Take some time, do a bit of number crunching, take a calculated chance and evaluate.