The search for protein sources on beef farms this winter

In previous weeks, I have discussed cereal options for farmers this winter.

The price for cereals off the combine continues to increase, almost on a daily basis.

It might sound like a strange statement, but the dearer that cereals off the combine become, the better value they represent, versus what will be available in the form of compound feed this winter.

Cereals will always be higher in energy this winter than compound blends which are likely to contain fillers such as sunflower and palm kernel.

The most common question I am getting on farms and over the phone over the last few weeks is, “What are we going to do about protein this winter, soya is a crazy price?”

Much of the major corn and soybean-producing areas of the US are now in the middle of one of the worst droughts in decades, certainly the worst since 1988, and possibly since the 1930s.

As of July 30, 37% of the US corn belt was considered to be in an “extreme” or “exceptional” drought status.

States like Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska and Wisconsin are all feeling the brutal brunt of this drought.

To put figures on it, the predicted reduction in soya production in America in 2012 is equivalent to 60% of the total EU requirement for a whole year.

As no EU country produces any significant tonnage of soya, we are huge net importers and, as a result, are totally dependent on supplies from North and South America.

Coupled with a poor soya harvest, the drought has also wiped out much of the US corn (maize) crops.

The significance of this, apart from huge cereal price increases, is that some of the alternatives to soya traditionally used in ruminant diets, namely corn gluten and corn distillers which are maize by-products, will be in short supply.

Soya as a protein source is essential for the feeding of both pigs and poultry and, as a result, the world supply will be diverted towards these sectors, particularly in China.

For dairy farmers, soya is unfortunately a necessary evil.

However, for beef producers, soya is not essential for either finishing or growing stock.

Given that distillers and gluten are now scarce and pricey, what alternatives remain?

Rapeseed has been priced according to rises in soya, while sunflower, although high in protein, has very poor energy content. Brewers grains look to be in short supply this side of Christmas.

Enhancing the protein content of cereals

Given the pressure on protein supply worldwide, all options to increase the protein content of diets are being explored by Irish farmers.

One such option which has been used successfully over the last number of years is the use of urea-based additives to preserve native wheat, barley and oats.

This process uses urea and an enzyme to produce ammonia in a clamp of cracked cereal.

The ammonia in the process eliminates moulds and bacteria in the clamp, while increasing the protein of the cereal by approximately 40%, or by four units of protein.

One of the biggest advantages of this process is the pH of the finished product increasing to the 8.5 to 9.5 range.

This is an ideal complement for typically Irish acidic silages, resulting in a healthier rumen and improved beef and dairy production.

So what are your protein options?

Some alternative protein sources have been developed over the last few years, and now is the time to really consider them as alternatives to expensive imports for beef animals.

Optigen, manufactured by Alltech, is a non-protein nitrogen (NPN) source for ruminants.

It supplies the fibre-digesting bugs with a steady and ready supply of protein that they can incorporate immediately.

This improves fibre digestion and feed utilisation.

On farms where I have seen it used, it dramatically reduces the passage of cereals through the animals, resulting in more thorough digestion and improved productivity.

Typically, 100g of Optigen will replace 500g or more of soya, and it therefore creates space within the ration. This can be filled with forages to enhance rumen health.

Liquid feeds have become more popular over the last few years around the world as sources of condensed protein and sugar sources.

Many large-scale dairy and beef farms in the US would use liquid feeds as a significant fraction of their diet.

As well as providing an alternative protein source for beef and dairy producers, liquid feeds increase diet palatability and energy density.

Given that much of the silage produced in Ireland this year will unfortunately be of poorer quality, a product that will encourage animals to increase intake while reducing protein costs will be a huge asset this coming winter.


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