Q: Back in the day, a lot of people made their own feed and there were a million recipes for it that worked. Why is it any harder now?
A: I’ll claim a unique perspective on this, because I am an animal nutritionist, a feed formulator and owner of Union Point Custom Feeds. I have a background in Animal Science and an understanding of the rendering process that makes meat meals, which used to be the foundation of many feeds.
The meat and bone meal that was once the “backbone” (excuse the pun) of the feeds industry is no longer a common ingredient. It turned out to be a transmitter of Mad Cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE). Mad Cow disease destroys the brain and is the result of a misfolded protein that can be found in the nervous systems of infected animals. It can be transmitted through the tissue, meat and bones that have come in contact with it, carrying the brain-wasting disease to animals that consume those products. The meat-and-bone meal made from the leftovers of processing all kinds of animals used to be the primary source of protein for animal feeds. All types of animal scraps and dead animals of every sort went into meat and bone meal, and mills used it in truckloads or train car loads. Grandma could buy a bag of it at the feed store and it was considered a good ingredient for the protein, calcium and phosphorus it provided. I have old feed recipes going back a hundred years, and they nearly all call for meat and bone meal or “meat scrap”. The proteins in animal products are complete proteins and provide good nutrition for omnivores like birds and pigs and humans.
Then something changed (long story), and Mad Cow Disease began to strike cows that ate feeds that were contaminated with the remains of cattle that had Mad Cow disease. If a cow had Mad Cow, her carcass might easily end up in meat and bone meal. Once the USDA and others figured out the source of the epidemic in the 1990s they aggressively removed meat and bone meal from the list of approved ingredients and made it a criminal offense to use it in any feed mill that makes feed for ruminants like cows and sheep. That’s when soy meal really took off as a substitute ingredient. Mills could still use meat and bone meal if they did not make ruminant feed, but most mills do make feed for cattle, goats, or sheep, so it is illegal to use it in most mills. That’s good. Mad Cow disease stopped when they stopped using meat and bone meal.
It’s relatively easy to make a homemade chicken feed using meat and bone meal because birds like it and they will eat it. But now that the chicken owner can’t get it, fish meal is the most available protein meal if you don’t want to use soy meal, and chickens just plain don’t like it. At the mill I like to use wild fish meal from the leftovers of the fishing industry and disguise it in pellets, so they do eat it. It’s a problem for homemade or mash type feeds though. There is no point feeding birds something they will leave in the bottom of the trough. Also, if you use too much, it can flavor meat and eggs.
Mills can still use pork meal and chicken meal, and larger feed companies have mills that make no ruminant feed and can use meat and bone meal in those facilities. Obviously, Union Point does not use it. I don’t like the “factory farmed” aspect of pork or chicken meals, so I don’t use them either. But big commercial mills find them much cheaper than fish meal, so they often do use them. We do use insects, but that’s another topic.
Grains are a piece of cake, so to speak. It’s easy to find grains and other carbs and birds love them. It’s the protein that is the problem.
Vegetable sources of protein are one good option, but that is limited as well. Most grains don’t contain the essential protein component lysine, and without it, we single-stomached animals just don’t thrive. Some oats might have 14% crude protein, but oats alone won’t provide enough lysine to allow monogastric animals to be healthy. They need that lysine and finding that in a form they can and will eat is the goal.
Soybeans and other legumes like alfalfa and peas contain lysine, and there are small amounts in a lot of seeds and grains, but the challenge is getting enough concentration into the feed that the animals will eat. And some vegetable sources, like soybeans, garbanzos and other legumes have anti-nutritional factors that limit their use if not heat-treated. They will block other proteins from being digested!
I will try to teach you some ways to address these things in future articles.