The New Gourmet Feeds: Kombucha for Chickens?

This article by Michael Helmstetter, Ph.D., was first published Jan. 27, 2021, at Forbes: The New Gourmet Feeds: Kombucha for Chickens?

I’ll start by conceding the point that animal feed might not be the sexiest topic you consider today. But it is a fascinating slice of the animal health industry that’s undergoing phenomenal change, and with it, bringing promise of happier animals, improved profitability to producers and healthier foods to consumers.

For decades, the animal feed business has followed a standard recipe: take corn, soy and a mineral; smash it all together in a pellet; and then feed it uniformly to all the animals in the herd or flock. The key was uniformity and cost control: feeding high rates of a narrow diet was efficient, easy to manage and generally achieved the weight gain desired. Feed-conversion ratios were measured and fine-tuned, giving producers the illusion of control.

But components of nutrition were missed, leading to less-desirable outcomes for the animals. The mandate to avoid antibiotics, the never-ending drive for efficiency, and the increasing consumer concern for animal welfare also contributed to a re-examination of the basic tenets of animal feed. Which leads us to today’s new focus on gut health, nutrition and healthy-living supplements for farm animals, creating healthier products for humans throughout.
A new recipe

To see the change in approach, you need look no further than the industry leaders in animal feed, many of which now sound more like granola manufacturers offering paleo, grain-free, high-nutrient, easy absorption, and delicious balanced components. Look at Cargill, a 155-year-old company that started in grain trade and launched an animal feed division that focused, in the 1950s, on applying computer analysis to feed development. In 2011, Cargill doubled down on global animal feed with its acquisition of Provimi, for its feed premixes and additives. Today, Cargill – still a global leader in animal feed – has a strategic partnership with Delacon, a pioneer in phytogenic feed additives.
Phytogenic additives are natural ingredients – think herbs, spices, plant extracts. The press release announcing the 2017 partnership made the case this way: “We are entering a new era of phytogenic feed additives, and the next five years are decisive for the developments in this growing market.”

Why is it so important to add herbs and spices and extracts to feed? In part, for the same reasons we use herbs, spices and extracts in our own foods. Appearance is one factor, because as the saying goes, we eat first with our eyes. Color, texture and variety make foods more appealing, and thus more likely to be welcomed. There’s enhanced flavor and in some cases, better preservation of essential elements. We also know these items to include antioxidants (such as carotinoids and vitamins A and C) and these naturally occurring substances are known to play a role in protecting the body against heart disease, inflammation, cancers and other diseases.

On the cost-benefit side of the discussion, a trace addition of less than 1% of the feed total can generate remarkable outcomes in digestibility, nutrient uptake, protein utilization. All of which means the recipient animal will have more efficient gut health and stronger immunity in fighting disease or any external stress events.

You can imagine the feed moguls of decades ago laughing out loud at the idea of gourmet, natural feed recipes – one step removed from hippies, granola and snake oil. But it’s not snake oil, it’s science that is uncovering truths about animal health, and human health, in nutrition. And it generates a very healthy bang for the buck: Feed is the largest single cost of animal production, so feed efficiency is directly tied to producers’ profitability. Those 1950s computer models are now highly sophisticated and detailed analytics that drive proper nutrition and management to achieve feed-to-conversion ratios, weight gain target or boost production – no matter if the end product is milk, eggs or meat. For a producer, it’s a three-way win: healthier animals, avoidance of antibiotics, and better alignment with consumer preferences.

No wonder the feed supplement market is a high spot in agriculture. The global feed supplement market is estimated to reach $38B in 2021, marking more than a 5% compound annual growth rate worldwide.

Fertile ground: Exploring humate additives

Although the feed additive market is dominated by a handful of global leaders (including Cargill, BASF, DSM and Novus International), the growing body of microbiome science is creating new opportunities. In addition to plant extracts and herbs, researchers are exploring gut health effects of components like mycotoxins and humates. (You can think of humates as the last bit of carbon that exists in humified organic decomposition; perhaps the safest and most productive input in sustainable agriculture, suggests Agriculture Solutions, a Canadian firm supplying fertilizers for regenerative agriculture.)

One example of this at Purdue University’s gut biome research laboratory. In one project (disclosure: a TechAccel investment) in broiler chickens, which go from egg to finish in just six weeks, the research explores how to make the gut heathier, to catalyze nutrients more efficiently and improve feed conversion. The project is incorporating humates into the feed granule, recalling natural chicken behavior to scratch for food and ingest dirt while pecking the ground. The humate research allows for tight and precise results because the minerals and their effects are commonly understood. The goal is to test and design a normalized approach for the real world.

Who’s laughing now? 

It is increasingly looking like science-based natural feed and feed additives will be desirable targets for Big Ag M&A pursuit or venture equity investment. With the broad landscape of research – from major agtech firms, traditional Big Ag, land grant universities and microbiology startups (and technology-venture development firms like ours) – this back-to-nature movement is here to stay. And since a key focus is enhancing health without therapeutics (no antibiotics), there’s strong marketability to align with consumer preferences.

Don’t be surprised to see herbs, spices, extracts and other natural ingredients taking center-stage in animal feed additives. With better understanding of the role of such additives in animal health, the next step might just be gourmet-label, chef-inspired and lab-tested supplements for poultry, fish, pigs and cattle.

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