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Past, present and future of the feed industry-1

Changes in agricultural production practices began in the 18th century culminated in better approaches to overall animal feeding at around the turn of the 19th century. As a result, a constantly evolving feed industry was born. 


Nobody knows when deliberate animal feeding systems developed, as it happened before the advent of writing. Techniques of animal husbandry developed spontaneously some 12,000 years ago in several areas of the so-called ‘Fertile Crescent’, an ancient area of early human civilisation stretching between Mesopotamia, Assyria and across to Egypt. The ability to create a stable food supply from animals allowed the world’s population to grow, residential centres to develop and cities to emerge. The domestication of wild crops and livestock, and the introduction of irrigation and the plough meant that there was enough to feed a world population of over 200 million by the time of the birth of Christ.
As the human population grew and societies became increasingly urbanised, plant and animal agriculture became more organised, efficient, and productive, with periodic game-changing advancements in technology and innovation. Once animal production practices transitioned from free-range grazing to confined housing, and animals were bred for better productive performance, providing them with a ‘nutritionally balanced’ diet became necessary. Changes in agricultural production practices begun in the 18th century culminated in better approaches to overall animal feeding at around the turn of the 19th century. As a result, a constantly evolving feed industry was born.

Nutrition became a scientific discipline primarily during the last 200 years. In 1810 a German scientist named Albrecht Daniel Thaer developed the first feed standards by comparing potential feedstuffs to meadow hay and assigning a ‘hay value’ as a comparative measure. About 50 years later, the Weende Experiment Station in Germany devised the ‘proximate analysis system’, which allowed feed to be analysed for certain defining characteristics which were used to determine crude fibre, nitrogen (and hence crude protein by calculation), ash and moisture – which, although rather limited in usefulness, remains in place as a system for basic comparisons of nutrient value in feedstuffs today (‘proximate analysis’).

These German scientists introduced reproducible and mathematical means to assess nutritional value based on chemical analysis of feedstuffs. In 1864, Dr. E. Wolff paved the way for the first feed standards based on digestible nutrients, and W.O. Atwater brought the Wolff standards to the attention of American researchers in 1874, which were then published in 1880 by H.P. Armsby in his book entitled ‘Manual of Cattle Feeding’ (Schoeff et al., 2005; Armsby, 1908). These feeding standards were adapted by C. Lehman in 1897 and were published a year later by W.A. Henry in the first edition of his book ‘Feeds and Feeding’ (Henry, 1898).

These standards were further modified in the 1915 edition of ‘Feeds and Feeding’ by W.A. Henry and F.B. Morrison to express the requirements of animals and the composition of feeds in terms of digestible protein and total digestible nutrients (TDN), the latter as a combined value for the useful energy from carbohydrates, fats, and protein (Henry and Morrison, 1915). From the 1920s to the 1940s, considerable information was published on the mineral and vitamin requirements of various animal species, but none were considered in feeding standards until 1942, when L.A. Maynard directed the Committee on Animal Nutrition of the National Research Council in the U.S. to form subcommittees to prepare nutrient requirement tables for farm and laboratory animals. These were first published in 1944 and subsequently updated as deemed necessary. NRC nutrient requirements are now used as a global standard for formulation and research and are available for poultry, swine, dairy, beef cattle, sheep, goats, horses, rabbits, dogs, cats, mink and foxes, fish and laboratory animals.

The first use of ground grain for animal feed was recorded as early as 1813, but grinding grains for livestock was only a secondary purpose of early mills. Originally mills were in place for grinding grain for human consumption, and the leftovers were naturally thought to have potential feeding value for livestock and poultry. Oats were traditionally used for animal feeds, especially equine, as they were cheap to grow and had much less use in human food compared to wheat. The end of the 19th century marked a culmination of events that put the industrialisation of animal feed into force. The industrial revolution had already ignited growth in grain milling, meat packing, and milk processing. The concurrent increase in milling waste that was being dumped into water sources quickly gained negative attention and was halted by governmental law.

During this time the benefits of a balanced diet in animal production were being realised. There was an immediate need to redirect by-products from human food production to avoid waste build-up and to substantiate complete feeds. When chemical analysis of such grain by-products proved their nutritional value, the commercialisation of the modern feed industry was initiated. Today, these by-products are more appropriately defined as co-products of grain and animal processing, using technologies that extract nutrient and energy value.
The first commercial opportunity for formulated feeds, as we would recognise them today, arose in the early 1800s when horses and mules supplied the main form of transportation and energy to drive agricultural equipment. The network of livery stables that supplied feed and rest for horses were almost as common as service and gasoline stations are today (Schoeff et al., 2005). Good feed for horses and mules was in high demand, and many of the largest feed companies in existence today (e.g. Cargill, ADM, Purina Mills, and Ridley) started out by producing horse and mule value-added feeds, although very little scientific feed formulation or manufacturing was involved.

Manufacturing formulated feeds based on the first feed standards started in the late 1800s. In 1870, the first batch mixed feed was reported in Massachusetts, but it was only after the first animal nutrition books were published by Armsby and Henry in the 1880s that the industry took off as a whole. The first corn gluten was manufactured in 1882 and Cargill, who had primarily dealt in flour milling, entered the animal feed industry just two years later in 1884. In the mid 1800s sociologists such as Mayhew (1851) were writing about the ‘cat meat men’ present in major cities such as London, who purveyed mostly horsemeat to households for their pets. In 1890 meat scraps were one of the first by-products to be recognised for their superior nutritional value and adopted by the emerging commercial feed industry. The 1890s also introduced the incorporation of brewing by-products into animal feed and saw the start of Purina Mills in 1894 (Pederson, 2000).

All aspects of feed manufacturing advanced rapidly at the advent of the 20th century. The intensification of the food system initially involved the development of dedicated farming units, but the introduction of synthetic fertilisers in the 1900s allowed for control of nitrogen levels in soil and significantly advanced farm productivity. This allowed greater specialisation and dramatic increases in crop yields, which in turn led to increased livestock production. The feed industry, and agriculture overall, began to embrace more advanced technologies and mechanisation in pursuit of feed uniformity and efficiency. In the years leading up to 1900 the first hammermill was used, followed by the horizontal batch mixer in 1909. The first quarter of the 20th century saw rapid evolution in the mill, but the entire industry was revolutionised when Purina introduced pelleted feed in the 1920s. This method was used to compress fine, unpalatable, variable density and difficult feed materials into easier-to-handle pellets with increased uniformity, and was rapidly adopted by other manufacturers. By the 1930s there were many feed mills which specialised in pellet production.
In the U.S. feed mills had been traditionally located in cities like Chicago or Minneapolis for their proximity to grain mills. Companies already in the milling industry were heavily involved in the feed industry as a means to utilise grain processing by-products as an alternative to disposing of them. The early feeds were made by adding nutrients to basic flour by-products. However, the 1940s and 1950s marked a time when formulations became more complex as essential trace minerals were identified, synthetic vitamins were developed, and the addition of antibiotics came into practice. Simultaneously, the feed industry began to expand beyond the original flour milling companies, with hundreds of firms entering the feed business; the total number reaching more than 2,000. Moving away from the original hubs, smaller feed mills accomplished the new complex diet formulations with batch mixing and were in locations closer to the farm. This transition was important in terms of opportunities for specialisation, as was the introduction of extruded pet food later in the mid 1950s.

By the end of the 1950s advancements and specialisation had continued to favour a trend of consolidation in the feed industry. Transitioning to the 1960s and 1970s involved the construction of very large feed mills, so that the norm became plants capable of producing 200–500,000 tons annually. Relocated to large sea ports, grain terminals and along rivers and railway lines, these mills were only limited by the costs in shipping raw materials and distributing finished product. However, cattle feedlots and other large farms chose to install their own feed mills in efforts to become more competitive.

Meanwhile, farm technologies such as fertilisers, chemical pesticides, antibiotics and hormones became commonplace. The growth of the feed industry led to increased consolidation of farms, which took advantage of economies of scale in production. At the same time, the number of farms diminished, while the size of the remaining farms increased and resulted in overall increased productivity. In fact, from 1950 to 2000 the number of U.S. farms decreased from 5 million to 2.2 million.

Consolidation is not the only industry trend that has continued to date in the U.S. Enhanced automation of the feed mill began in 1975 and has since evolved to minimise feed cost per unit of animal produced and maximise the efficient production of feed. Since the first automated feed mill, the technology and software behind processing have continued to improve ingredient receiving logistics, ground ingredient particle size characteristics, batching and mixing, pellet processing, extrusion processing, post-pellet applications, process control, feed delivery logistics and many other facets of manufacturing (Ferket and Stark, 2011). Over the last 50 years, technology has diversified so that production can be even more automated while allowing specialising for a given feed mill’s goals. More recent advances in equipment include liquid applicators in 1990, the overall computerisation of operations, NIR in-line nutrient analysis and data collection in the feed mill.

The European feed industry emerged in a way and time that mirrored much of what was happening in the U.S. As early as the 17thcentury, European farmers were utilising manure, crop rotation and cover crops technologies to increase crop yields. Guano and bone meal from the emerging colonies were increasingly available for agricultural use.

Grain processing and mill technology advanced rapidly in the 19th century. The first compound feed was thought to have been used by the British as transportable nourishment for horses during wars. Resembling a large baked biscuit, this feed was a combination of meal from oat, peas, rye, flax, wheat or maize. According to feeding experiments done by the Prussian army, 3 3/8 lb (1.53 kg) of this first compound horse feed could substitute for 11 pounds (5 kg) of oats (Kariger, 1963). The roller mill debuted in Switzerland in 1830 and improved as it spread throughout Europe in the coming decades. By 1877 it had become a tremendous innovation in grain processing and agriculture overall; the number of roller mills in England increased from one in January to 350 in December of the same year (Farrer, 2005). In the mid-1800s the introduction of properly balanced proteins and starches was shown to have the potential to increase the quality of meat, milk and eggs. The strides made in agriculture leading up to the late 19thcentury began to reveal the value of nutrition in increasing animal performance and the profitability therein. Producers and nutritionists started to experiment with formulation and, for the first time, began to design feeding for predetermined results in terms of performance.

Oil seed crushing was already a significant contributor to the feed industry, with oil cake being a large constituent of animal feeds early on. However, the rapid industrialisation of various sectors throughout Europe in the later 19th century produced mass quantities of other by-products that found their way to the feed industry (Dean, 1996). With raw materials and equipment already in hand, the emerging feed industry provided an open door to companies already invested in processing grain.

The early 20th century was rapid in feed innovations. Inconvenient oil cake slabs were replaced by feed that was more appropriate for direct feeding. Pelleting was as revolutionary in Europe as it was in the U.S., rapidly becoming the most popular form of feed.
In 1959 Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands formed the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation (FEFAC) as an umbrella organisation for the European feed industry. FEFAC is in place to unify the industry and initiate communication and cooperation across E.U. countries where industry regulation is concerned. Since 1959 FEFAC has successfully piloted the European feed industry through a variety of issues, but 1996 marked the most trying obstacle (FEFAC, 2009). The 1996 Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis in the E.U. was linked to the inclusion of mammalian meat and bone meal (MBM) in ruminant feed. BSE infected meat was associated with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans, and thus posed an enormous risk in the food chain. Following the outbreak, the E.U. suspended the use of MBM, but in 2001 the use of MBM was banned from animal feed altogether. These regulations resulted in heavy dependence on raw material imports such as soybean meal to sustain Europe’s supply of meat, milk and eggs. Moving forward, FEFAC and the industry were, and continue to be, heavily focussed on sustainability in order to restore self-reliance.

The European feed industry of the 21st century is known for its initiatives in feed and food safety. They set the pace internationally, with the 2001 ban of MBM, the 2006 ban on antibiotics in feed, regulatory legislation regarding nitrate in animal waste and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO). Individual countries within the E.U. lead international discussions on the global feed industry’s challenges and opportunities. Denmark, for instance, is the world leader in antibiotic surveillance and risk assessment, while the Netherlands pioneered ‘gas washing’ as a method of cleaning livestock gas emissions. As outside countries now face major regulatory decisions, the E.U.’s experience with regulation, agribusiness and food safety will likely become the industry model.

Although Brazil is now the third largest supplier of world feed, commercial feed production has only been common within the country since 1960. The emergence of the Brazilian feed industry followed the same model as the U.S. and Europe; those companies involved in the milling and processing of wheat, corn and barley being the first to be involved in animal feed. The first feed mills made animal feed from wheat bran in the 1940s.

The first true example of a commercial feed came from the Agricultural Cooperative of Cotia which, in 1941, built a feed mill in Sao Paulo to meet the demands of the developing egg layer business. Over time as the business grew, so did the demands for feed and this was met by the cooperative’s feedmill. Brazil’s other hugely successful integrated meat producers, principally broilers and pigs, also required high production levels of feed. Today, 99% of broiler feed is integrated with production companies, as is most of Brazil’s swine feed, although not to the same degree. This level of integrated production means that 80% of Brazil’s feed production is manufactured by the same company that will feed it to their animals.

Many of the Brazilian feed companies are linked to one another. For example the Mogiana/Guabi Company was founded in 1974 by former employees of Purina. In the late 1980s they had developed a substantial premix business that surpassed Purina in feed production. In the 1990s the executives from Mogiana/Guabi left to form Nutron. Subsequently the executives left Nutron several years after it was acquired by Provimi to establish further feed, premix, and pet food companies.

Brazil has seen substantial growth in aquaculture feed and pet food production. Today, the Brazilian pet food business is the second largest by volume in the world. This industry was almost non-existent before the 1990s. Enabled by a dramatic fall in price for food products in the 2000s, the expansion of the middle classes, and imported extrusion technology, Brazil’s pet food market has grown 25 fold within the last 20 years.

Brazil has built its impressive feed industry by embracing modern technology in both equipment and zootechnical additives faster and more enthusiastically than any of the other major feed producing nations in the past 20 years. With a competitive advantage as one of the world’s leading producers of cheap maize, soybeans and other commodities, Brazil’s future as leading producer of animal feed is assured.

The feed industry in China has grown and consolidated at an unmatched rate relative to other regions. In 1930 the first modern flour mill began operation in China, allowing animal producers access to wheat bran. However, the first modern feed mill in China did not exist until 1949 (Hsu and Lopez, 2000). Subsequently, the years following were filled with political turmoil and stunted economic growth, and the centralised government limited grain production so that the majority was used in human consumption, limiting any potential for feed industry or livestock production.

A shift in Chinese policy in 1976 led to greater involvement in global trade and a willingness to adopt ideas and technology from the rest of the world. From this vantage point, compound feed and the milling industry were encouraged for the established benefits they could provide in animal production. A stronger feed industry could support livestock production that could increase both the economical standing of China and the health of its people. Up to this point there were virtually no feed mills in China, however, the industry had expanded to 14,000 feed mills by 1985. This count included small feed mills producing less than one tonne per hour (Hsu and Lopez, 2000). These feed mills were developed based on the needs of changing livestock production, and so became concentrated in provinces with major livestock sectors.

China’s leaders made the success of the feed industry a priority for the country, with strategic directives starting in 1976. In 1977, China’s first feed research institute was established and the following year the Ministry of Commerce assembled a team to study the already successful feed industries in France, Japan and the U.S. In 1984, a draft of the feed industry development plan was published to outline the goals and strategies set for 1984–2000 (Hsu and Lopez, 2000). That same year, with the intention to expedite the industry’s expansion, the government ceased levying import tariffs on feedstuffs and milling equipment, gave three year tax breaks to new feed mills and allowed mills to be exempt from taxes based on profit (World Bank, 1993). These incentives were effective and the feed industry expanded vastly in this time. Specialist feed ingredients and supplements were introduced at a national conference in 1986, and the first 12 products were approved for use in 1987. Within a span of 10 years, mixed feed was all but phased out and compound feeds became the primary focus of the industry, with 62.99 million tons produced in 1997 (National Statistics China, 2014).

The first feed standards in China were published by the Ministry of Commerce in 1993, and by 1996 regulations had been established for compound and mixed feed, feed packaging, storage, and transportation. However, inconsistent interpretations of these regulations resulted in almost 10% of feed testing below standard in 1998 (Hsu and Lopez, 2000). In an effort to provide structure, the Feed and Feed Additive Regulation was enacted by the State Council LAO in 1999; and these, albeit with revisions, are still in place today (Enting, 2010). However, even with increased regulation, the new millennium proved to be a time of severe feed safety obstacles for China. The 2007 pet food recall was a major challenge to the industry, when melamine and cyanuric acid (which are high in nitrogen and used to give a false high calculated crude protein content) were found in protein components used in pet foods, causing kidney failure. Chinese companies claiming to sell wheat gluten, rice protein and corn gluten were inflating the protein content of wheat flour using the high N chemical compounds. Recalls occurred in South Africa, the E.U. and the U.S. and the USDA mandated the examination of all vegetable proteins for consumption imported from China (IBISWorld, 2015). Despite this, Chinese officials were slow to acknowledge the issue, but eventually allowed the U.S. FDA to inspect their facilities. Much of 2008 and 2009 were focused on eliminating protein adulteration and addressing the crisis that resulted. In 2010, a revised version of the Feed and Feed Additive Regulation was published with a clear initiative to closely manage animal feed production to improve quality and safety. Among other stipulations, the edited regulation specified a feed supply tracking system, evaluation procedures for new feeds and the refining of imported feed products (Enting, 2010).

Today, China continues to monitor food and feed safety while shifting their focus on becoming self-reliant (Cai, 2014). As a nation with a long history of famine and starvation, China is in pursuit of self-sustained food security and that starts with grain production and the feed industry. Grain production has risen steadily to reach 601 million tons in 2013, and the feed industry saw an annual growth of 15% from 2010 to 2015 to become the largest in the world (IBISWorld, 2015). However, they are still heavily reliant on imports and remain the world’s largest user of DDGs and soybean meal in order to support 1.3 billion people with the necessary meat, milk, and eggs (Wan, 2014). Those imports are currently not of U.S. origin, after China’s halt to all DDGs imports that have not been tested at origin for any unapproved varieties of grain. Chinese officials claim that this is a step towards ‘China taking good control of its own bowl’ by not permitting heavy dependence on western grain varieties, but rather developing their own (Blaustein, 2014).

*This article was originally published in the Journal of Applied Animal Nutrition, Vol. 4; e3; page 1 of 11.

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