Farmers are trialling homegrown alternatives to imported soya, a known cause of deforestation in the Amazon, to make a more sustainable animal feed.
After three years of farm trials facilitated by the Innovative Farmers research network and the Organic Research Centre, farmers have found three alternative protein sources for chicken and pig feed.
These include sprouting vetch seeds, where seeds are allowed to germinate; a product made by heating and dehulling beans to increase the nutritional value; and grain tailings, a by-product of domestic grain production.
Mike Mallett, an organic egg producer in Suffolk, led the sprouting seeds trial, and said the obstacles he faced say much about the challenges of replacing soya in animal feed.
“I’ve been trying to take soya out of my chicken feed for nine years and have grown all sorts of crops including sunflowers and lupins,” said Mallett. “But our farm has either been too cold, or perhaps too alkaline. Vetch, however, is something our farm can grow well.”
Despite the suitability and benefits of vetch, a legume that absorbs nitrogen from the air and releases it into soil, it historically has not been used as feed as it contains toxins that affect egg laying in chickens.
But the trials found that allowing the seeds to grow and sprout before feeding it to the hens, sufficiently reduced the toxicity.
According to Mallet, this method has the potential to be used across other egg farms seeking to reduce their reliance on soya.
“The trials have all been successful in their own way,” said Dr Lindsay Whistance, senior livestock researcher at the Organic Research Centre. “They’ve all highlighted existing potential in feed stuffs that can be adapted, helping to find solutions for reducing the need to import feed for pigs and poultry.”
Historically pig and chicken feed contain a high proportion of imported soya, a crop that doesn’t grow well in the UK, due to its high protein content and nutrient efficiency.
However, recent investigations have highlighted how the demand for the ‘miracle’ animal feed crop is a key driver of global deforestation, with the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya reporting that 38 per cent of imported soya in 2019 was from sources at risk of deforestation, and only 27 per cent of imports were from deforestation free-assured sources.
Concerned over the sustainability and the increasing price volatility of soya, farmers have been taking matters into their own hands.
Talking to Wicked Leeks ahead of his own soya-free trials last year, John Malseed, an organic turkey producer in Devon highlighted the growing trend of consumer interest in ethical supply chains: “Our own customers now ask us two main questions; do you use plastic packaging, and do you use soya in your feed?”
Particularly for organic farmers the use of soya in animal feed has seemed contrary to the values of organic production, but according to Jerry Alford, Innovative Farmers field lab coordinator, these trials could help the transition away from the problematic crop.
“The trial results offer a way to achieve 100 per cent organic feed without the carbon footprint associated with imported products, something that many producers have always felt goes against organic principles,” he said.