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Reducing feed cost during times of high feed-ingredient prices


Kristjan Bregendahl, Ph.D.; Poultry Nutritionist, Devenish Nutrition, Fairmont MN


The cost of feed accounts for 65 percent or more of the cost of egg production. Minimizing feed cost and optimizing feed utilization and production therefore becomes paramount for ensuring profitability. The following considerations are options for lowering feed costs without compromising performance.


Diet density

The three most expensive parts of laying-hen diets are energy, protein, and phosphorus (in that order), so it is tempting to lower the dietary concentration of one or more of these in an effort to lower feed cost. This could be done by re-formulating the diets, or—if the diet program includes different diets based on feed intake—switching to a higher-intake diet (e.g., from a diet designed for 25 lb/day feed intake to 26 lb/day, which lowers diet density and feed price. However, switching to such lower-density diets is only possible if the flock is ‘overfed’ to begin with. Otherwise, lowering diet density likely backfires, because the birds need the same amount of energy (calories) and nutrients regardless of feed-ingredient prices—the birds will either increase feed consumption in an attempt to obtain the needed calories and nutrients, or the smallest birds will reduce egg-production due to the now marginally deficient diet. The loss of income from either of these consequences will offset the decreased feed cost of the lower-density diet, and may even increase feeding cost (Table 1). Even if a small loss in production is accepted as a consequence of the lower-density diet, there is a very fine balance between lowering production slightly and crashing the flock.


Table 1. Lowering the feed price by reducing energy and/or nutrients often leads to an increase in feed consumption and thus feeding cost.

Energy and/or nutrient density  Feed price         Feed consumption             Feeding cost

                                                           $/ton                        lb/day                  $/day per 1,000 birds

Original                                               300           ×             0.25               =              37.50

Reduced                                              290           ×             0.26               =              37.70


To minimize feed cost and maintaining the desired production, it is important to work closely with the feed mill and nutritionist to ensure that the diet currently fed is formulated to supply the birds with only what they require and with no excesses or deficiencies. Be prepared to share with the nutritionist information about current and desired production performance, including feed intake, egg weight, percentage egg production, and body weight. The nutritionist, in turn, will have to evaluate the dietary nutrient content, including the amino acid concentration and balance.

Using the correct rounding or minimum production amounts in diet formulation is helpful to avoid deficiencies or overages. Perhaps the diet-formulation program optimizes a given diet by using 52.435 lb/ton meat and bone meal, but the mill’s major scale needs 5-lb/ton increments and instead adds only 50 lb/ton—or, 22 lb/ton of a major ingredient is suggested, but the mill’s scales need at least 50 lb/ton inclusion rate without having to manually override a system error. So, set your diet-formulating program to use appropriate minimum production amounts and round the ingredients to match the scales’ capabilities. Also, most mixers cannot adequality mix (distribute) ingredients from the micro-bins when added at less than 1.0 lb/ton with amounts between 0.50 and 1.0 lb/ton being borderline. Even if the diet-formulation program can balance a diet using, form example, 0.35 lb/ton (0.0175%) l-threonine, most hens in the flock will likely be fed a marginally threonine-deficient diet, because the too-small amount of l-threonine cannot be adequately dispersed in the diet.


Alternative and byproduct ingredients

Most poultry diets in the USA are based on corn and soybean meal, but using other ‘alternative’ ingredients (e.g., wheat grain, sorghum, canola meal, linseed meal) and byproduct ingredients (e.g., corn DDGS, meat and bone meal, bakery meal, corn gluten meal, wheat midds) may lower feed cost without impacting performance. A word of caution, though: The prices of these ingredient often follow those of corn and soybean meal, and the energy and nutrient contents of these ingredients are lower than those in corn and soybean meal, so the alternative or byproduct ingredients may not always ‘price in’ and lower feed cost while maintaining the desired energy and nutrient concentrations.  


Feed-grade amino acids

The diet’s protein is mainly supplied by corn and soybean meal; however, birds do not need protein per se, but rather the 20 amino acids that make up protein. When all the amino acids in the diet are supplied by corn and soybean meal, there are excesses of some amino acids. These excesses can be reduced by not formulating with a crude protein minimum and instead using digestible amino acids while allowing feed-grade amino acids to replace some of the soybean meal. Because protein is the second-most expensive part of the diet, reducing soybean meal—yet still meeting the birds’ amino acid requirements through the use of feed-grade amino acids—can be very cost effective. In organic production, only feed-grade methionine (dl-methionine and MHA-type products) is allowed, but the feed cost of conventional and non-GMO diets frequently benefits from including l-lysine•HCl, l-threonine, and possibly l-tryptophan l-isoleucine, and l-valine.


Feed enzymes

Feed enzymes improve the digestibilities of energy and nutrients in the feed ingredients. NSP enzymes work on the fiber fraction of feed ingredients and increase the digestibility of energy; these enzymes can therefore replace at least some of the added oil in the feed, or help maintain adequate energy concentration when high-fiber, low-energy byproducts are used. Phytase enzymes increase the digestibility of phosphorus in corn and soybean meal, and will therefore reduce the amount of expensive mono- or dicalcium phosphate in the diet. Feed enzymes are well studied and have been used for many years with good results, and organic-approved versions are available. Although the enzymes add cost to the feed, they easily pay for themselves in energy and phosphorus savings. That said, there are differences in both price and efficacy of the enzymes, so the choice of enzyme (brand name) should be re-evaluated on a regular basis in an effort to save on feed cost. 


Feed additives

So far, discussion has centered on the diet’s energy and nutrient contents and how to best meet the hens’ requirements. Another, sometimes substantial, cost in the diet is feed additives. Yeast, probiotics, and essential oils are often added to improve the birds’ production or feed utilization through increased health or improved food safety. Many, but not all, of these feed additives are well-researched, their mode of action known and shared with customers, and confer significant benefits to the flock. However, multiple, similar feed additives with overlapping effects are sometimes added to poultry diets with minimal or no additional benefit to bird health and only increase cost to the producer. In these cases—or when unproven feed additives are used—all feed additives should be reviewed to determine if one or more can be eliminated or if less expensive, but equally effective, versions (i.e., different brand names) can be used.

Sometimes, feed additives are added to control parasites (e.g., intestinal worms or coccidia), but these additives are often expensive per treated ton of feed, and their effectiveness variable. While there certainly may be benefits of using these feed additives to prevent parasites, there are cost advantages in using them only when necessary, rather than continuously. Work with the nutritionist and veterinarian to choose the best option for your particular circumstances.

Mycotoxin binders can be useful when there are high concentrations of mycotoxins present in the feed ingredients or when the risk of mycotoxins in feed ingredients is high, but they are too expensive to add routinely. In addition, some mycotoxin binders are more effective than others against certain mycotoxins, so work closely with the feed mill to determine the mycotoxin risks and with the nutritionist to select the most appropriate and cost-effective binder for your situation.


Take-home message

When feed-ingredient prices are high, the first step in attempting to save on feed cost is to make sure the current diet’s energy and nutrient concentrations closely match the need of the specific flock with no excesses or deficiencies. Additionally, alternative feed ingredients can be considered, the feed utilization optimized using enzymes and feed-grade amino acids, and the use and choice of feed additives re-evaluated.