Ad van Wesel: "Sustainable feeding is the name of the game"

5 October 2022

The ever-rising energy prices, uncertain gas supplies and the need to decarbonise. Plenty of reasons to put a lot of effort into the reduction of energy used in our operations. But how do we ensure that our energy savings are not at the expense of the quality of the end product? That is what Ad van Wesel, director of the ForFarmers Nutrition Innovation Centre (NIC), and his team are working on day in and day out.

Change calls for innovation

Ad van Wesel
Ad van Wesel

“The agri sector is in a constant state of change”, begins Ad. “This transition calls for innovation and adaptability.” He raises several issues facing our industry, such as nitrogen and CO2 emissions, changing legislation and changing societal demands. “The animal itself is also changing thanks to genetic advances. When I started working in the sector 36 years ago, the growth rate of a finishing pig was on average 700 grams per day. Nowadays, 900 grams is common, and some farmers even achieve well over 1,000 grams per day. Achieving such performance requires constant fine tuning. You have to make sure the nutrition matches the ever-increasing potential of the animal.”

Impact of innovation

The impact of an innovation in feed on the rest of the supply chain and in particular at farm level, is a key focus within NIC projects: “We have to be aware that when you invest in one area, say animal welfare, the benefits in that area come at the expense of – for example – the efficiency of your own operations or elsewhere in the chain”, states Ad. “Take for example the ban on beak trimming. On the face of it this seems like a much-needed improvement in terms of animal welfare. However, when not managed correctly, animals get scared of each other and there is more unrest in the house. Feed conversion dropped, resulting in a higher demand for feed, and thus a bigger CO2 footprint per kg of finished product.” For Ad’s team, this means that as a team they are constantly seeking to achieve optimal results in changing conditions. “In this case, now two years later, we see that we are slowly moving back towards the previous feed efficiency again.”

Kill two birds with one stone

If an energy saving comes at the expense of feed conversion, it can have a negative impact at the farmers’ bottom line. This is why conversion is a key focus point for the NIC when it comes to CO2 reduction. “We have to realise that 95% of the CO2 footprint of feeds comes from the raw materials from which they are made. We only add 5% with production and transport. So, if feed efficiency drops because we save some energy in the mill, the net environmental impact will soon be negative.” According to Ad, this does not mean that we shouldn’t try to make efforts in this area.  After all we have our own obligations to reduce energy consumption. “With energy-saving measures, we are able to save costs as well as reduce our emissions. In times of high energy prices, such measures get extra wind in their sails, and you kill two birds with one stone.”

Netherlands is pelleted feed country

Afbeelding: Voer in schep_intro
The production of pressed feed consumes a lot of energy.

One of the themes the NIC is diving into to save energy is the form of feed: pressed feed (i.e. pellets and nuts) versus meal. “The Netherlands is really dominated by pelleted feed. We hardly use meal like they do in Germany and Belgium, for example. The feeding systems on-farm are not set up for that either”, says Ad. The production of pellets, which requires pressure and steam, consumes a lot of energy. A (partial) switch to feeding meal can therefore deliver substantial energy savings. “Does everything we produce have to be pelleted or has that use crept in? We are now investigating whether it is possible to feed meal.” Ad and his team are weighing up the benefits for energy consumption and the risks of worsening feed conversion. “Unfortunately, I can't tell you much about the outcome right now. We will do that in a subsequent piece, so watch this space”, he says with a wink.