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Capitalizing on NIRS technology in a commercial feed mill

In the current high feed-price climate, knowing the nutritional value of an ingredient can make a big difference to the cost of feeding a pig. It also allows more accurate formulation so that the pig’s nutritional requirements can be met more accurately, and performance targets met.

In recent years, the use of Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy (NIRS) has become affordable for the feed industry and even for individual producers, providing the opportunity to capitalize on its capability for quick and accurate nutrient analysis. At two recent workshops held in Lethbridge and Lacombe, Alberta, feed manufacturers, nutritionists and producers heard how this technology can be used to save feed costs.

“NIRS can be used in three ways,” said Geoff Smith with DFS Animal Nutrition, Newell, Iowa, who has been using it since 2006. “First, we use it for purchasing, to help us understand the value of different materials from various sources. We also use it to check compliance with quoted specifications, and finally we use it as the basis for formulation.”

For purchasing and formulation, NIRS is used to observe nutrient trends in raw materials, either due to changes in the process carried out by the supplier or, for example, when changing from one season’s crop to the next.

Smith said individual suppliers and supplier locations are compared and the data used for “shadow pricing,” where the nutrient value of the material is compared to the price charged. This allows purchasing on the basis of nutrient costs, which means that the cheapest materials by weight will not always be the best value nutritionally.

DDGS example

As an example of supplier monitoring, Smith showed data for corn DDGS from a specific plant, where crude fat content fell from 10.3 per cent to 8.7 per cent as changes were made to improve the efficiency of fat removal (Figure 1).

“The graph shows that there were several ‘blips’ due to plant maintenance or shutdown and overall a lot of variation,” he said. “However, the supplier doesn’t always tell you what is going on so you can’t take advantage of, say, a high oil level. You also need to recognize when changes are likely to happen, for example when new-harvest corn comes in.”

Different sources will have different nutrient values for the same raw material. For example, there can be a wide range of variation between different sources of DDGS. Demonstrating an example for a specific finisher diet, “This can lead to a difference in cost in the finished diet of $8.24 in a $300-plus diet, and this is a lot,” Smith said.

For materials such as soybean meal and meat and bone meal, there is a specification that they must meet. “We monitor these to identify any product that is ‘out of bounds,’ then inform the supplier,” Smith said. “We can use the NIRS data to make a claim for the value of the difference between the spec and the actual value. It’s not a good tool to use as a club, but we use it to influence suppliers and to help them to understand what their product is worth.”

Database

DFS Animal Nutrition has developed a database called Datamaster to handle the masses of information coming from the NIRS and laboratory analyses.

“Data can be imported directly from the NIRS machine, so that there is no dual entry of information and it also includes other, non-NIRS data,” Smith said. It’s also web based so can be accessed from anywhere and it has filtering capabilities to check the veracity of data. If a mistake is made, it’s identified and then odd results can be removed before adding to the database.

Smith said that when dealing with so many analyses, accurate labelling of samples is vital so that there is precise identification of each one.

Changes to feed formulations are made based on the analytical data as new materials enter the mill.

“This is mostly driven by product flow and changes are determined by how often you can justify a change in formulation,” Smith said. “It’s also driven by economics and changes will be made if the value is significant.”

Smith said that although they carry out shadow pricing continuously, it is difficult to segregate materials by bin and take advantage of differences in nutrient content, but doing so would add further value to the use of NIRS.

The main value in using NIRS comes from holding suppliers to claims, especially with soybean meal, and in being more accurate in the feeding of key nutrients.

“The NIRS machine can pay for itself very quickly, in some cases it could be less than a year,” Smith said. “Also, when feed costs are high, people are much more focused on nutrient content, the cost of those nutrients and, of course, the performance of the feeds. Being able to fulfil their needs more accurately can certainly impact customer satisfaction.”

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