How It’s Made: Quality Pellets

Before we built our feed mill I believed that whole grains were the best possible nutrition available for most animals. We did not expect to really use the pellet milling machinery that we bought with the rest of the old milling equipment. Our first couple of years we made "mash" feeds mostly, starting with whole grains and just chopping and mixing them. The owners loved the look of the feed and we all thought we were doing the best we could do to give the animals the freshest, most digestible feed possible. We thought pellets were just a way to disguise crummy ingredients, and since we intended to make a top quality feed we expected to have little use for a pellet milling system.

Now nearly 15 years down that road I have come nearly full circle on my views of pellets. I say "nearly" because there are certainly plenty of bad pellets out there, and it is also true you can't tell if a pellet is made of good or bad materials unless an animal simply won't eat it or does poorly on it. When buying in raw materials for our mill grain brokers have offered us grain dust pellets in truckload lots. We don't buy them, but a lot of mills do, and those are pellets that are literally junk from the bottoms of bins and railcars. 

I like to make pellets now because we still start with whole grains. They start out whole, they just aren’t whole anymore.  We simply hide the things that the animal needs but does not necessarily want inside the pellet and still have the freshest, most nutritious feed possible. Instead of just hiding grain dust and fillers like grass seed screenings, we can make a pellet with the exact same ingredients as a mash feed using whole grains instead of junk. 

What we do hide is the vitamins and minerals...you know how nasty a bottle of vitamins smells when you open it and sniff? It's unavoidable. Vitamins do smell bad. In a mixed feed, whether a chop, a mash or whole grains, the "micros" like vitamins and minerals tend to sift down to the bottom of the feeder. I don't blame the animals for turning up their noses at it. I wouldn't voluntarily eat vitamins if they weren't in a human-type pellet (a pill) either.

What a pellet does that I like is that it cuts down on waste. Pellets all look the same so animals cannot sort out just the parts they like. That is not a big problem with pigs, who like pretty much anything they see, but it's important when the feed gets bounced out of the feeder onto the ground. If it's a pellet it is still recognizable as feed and they will still eat it. That's especially true of birds. 

There has been so much research investigating the relative digestibilities of whole versus processed grains it's not even a question anymore, provided the grains you are working with are equal in food value and freshness. Processed junk is still just junk. But good quality materials that are ground, rolled, or otherwise sort of pre-chewed work better than whole grain kernels do. There are some reasons for this that I'll cover in another article.

That’s my take on it. Whole grains are the best ingredients, but they are not necessarily better in their unaltered form. Whole grains freshly milled into well-formulated pellets are the most efficient and cost-effective feeds for most farm animals.

Q:  Is “minimally processed feed” better than pellets made with cold steam equipment? Is the feed’s nutrition damaged by the equipment?

A:  On the contrary, it is improved.  Our equipment is specifically designed to mold freshly ground material into pellets using nothing more than pressure and low temperature steam.  When the pellets come out of the pellet mill you can comfortably hold them in your hand.  The temperatures throughout the processes stay well below boiling.  Although it is true that prolonged cooking can destroy vitamins in any food, our system ensures that your feed is at 100% of its vitamin level when it goes into the bag.  And our emphasis on freshness and clearly dated tags means your animals always get the nutrition you are paying for.  When making pelleted feeds, grain and other ingredients go from their whole form into finished product in a matter of minutes, and then are effectively re-sealed into pellets.  The pelleting process actually serves as a substitute for the seed coat by limiting surfaces that are exposed to oxidation and other environmental stresses. 

Q:  So is all your feed pelleted then?

A:  No, some of the feeds contain whole unbroken ingredients like peas or chopped seeds like pumpkin seeds.  Sometimes a feed’s form is so important to the animal it may be best to give it to them in that form.  For example, the whole peas in the horse and ruminant feeds are attractive to the animals.  They like to crunch them.  Or there are combination feeds that we tumble with a little molasses and Redmond trace mineral salt (applied on the outside like a pretzel).  Animals love the taste.   It depends on what works best for that particular feed.

Ask Alice: Are pellets more efficient?

Q:  Why do you say pellets are more efficient than whole grains?

A: As I was saying, there are some good reasons why we often pellet or otherwise process feed ingredients.  In the case of pigs the reason is that their digestive system works so fast they don’t keep whole kernels in their systems long enough to get the good out of whole grains. A ground up grain or seed has a lot of open surfaces that can be acted upon by the fluids, enzymes and actions of digestion, but a seed in its seed coat has a relatively small and protected surface area.  Pigs and other animals get some value from eating whole grains, sure, but at the price of feed who wants them to poop it undigested? (The answer to that is: the chickens. They think it is great to pick out the half-digested bits from other animals’ manure.) Pigs’ digestive systems are a lot like ours, except they chew less, so I will leave you to draw your own conclusions. Generations of Animal Science grad students who analyze poop for research and work-study programs will agree that there is plenty of whole stuff that is available post-pig if whole grains are fed unprocessed.

With birds pellets are also more efficient but for a different reason. Their little digestive system can’t handle more than about 5 or 6 ounces of feed at a time so if we want an egg a day (or solid growth in the case of a meat bird or pullet) we need to maximize their system’s efficiency. Of course the gizzard grinds up whole grains so they can be digested, but it takes a while, and while the bird is digesting the grain she ate at noon, there’s no room in her system for dinner.  Grandma’s chickens weren’t expected to lay an egg a day or finish growing in a couple of months so if it took a while to grind up the whole grains inside the chicken it didn’t matter.

With ruminants like goats, sheep, cattle and alpacas the animals do chew their cud, so they can eat whole grains and get some benefit from them, but even after the cud is chewed some whole seeds remain and are wasted. They digest rolled grains, chopped grains and pellets much better. Horses also do well on rolled grains, chopped material or pellets. Whole oats are great for horses, but rolling them, processing them or including them in a pellet minimizes waste and really improves digestion. Most of these animals are also eating hay or forage in addition to their pellets or processed grains.

One more thing to consider, though, is that the owner and the animals may prefer whole grains because they are easy to identify and pleasing to see. I’ll agree, I like the look of whole grains myself. So I compromise. I save the whole grains for treats and the pellets for nutrition and then I have the best of each.