Three locations to serve you in Ontario: Berwick, Morrisburg, Sebringville.
Our Mission - "To Serve and Develop Organic Agriculture!"
Organic farming is knowledge intensive. Our education section includes many of the current organic educational resources to help people understand organic production and learn how to improve their operations. Please let us know if there are further resources that we could add to our list.
Isabelle Masson – Customer Service Manager - Major Accounts
From Field to Feeder

Introduction to Organic Livestock Nutrition

The Basics of Livestock Nutrition

In general, the livestock industry manages production for optimal yields to ensure economic viability and to supply sufficient volumes to feed large populations. Organic farmers need to understand the nutritional needs of the livestock in order to produce tasty and nutritious organic animal products. The animal’s behaviour, growth pattern, reproductive capacity and food production are intimately linked to the feed it consumes. The nutritional value of the feed and the feed components must be delicately balanced. The results of good organic management and good organic feed include the great taste, colour, texture, nutritional value and optimal yield of the food product.

Animals, including humans, have a hierarchy of needs. The primary uses of nutrients derived from food are for general maintenance and reproduction. This channels the animal’s nutrients to survive, move and perform basic bodily functions. If there is additional energy and protein available, the animal may be able to devote resources to growth and good body condition. If your animals appear healthy but are not producing enough eggs, milk or meat for you, you may have a problem with a lack of energy and protein in the feed.

The critical rules of feeding are, first, to design a feeding program that is compatible with the animal’s biological makeup and secondly to provide a wide variety of feed ingredients to supply the full complement of the essential amino acids.

Determining the protein balance

Protein is the principal building block for body tissue and the production of food. Protein is synthesized by plants, animals and humans from dozens of different amino acids. Like carbohydrates, amino acids are molecules of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. They also contain nitrogen plus one or more minerals such as sulphur, phosphorous, or magnesium. For each animal species, there is a specific set of about 10 to 20 different amino acids that the animal must find in its diet. The animal’s metabolism is capable of synthesizing the remaining dozens of amino acids by breaking down its food and reassembling the molecules.

Labels on feedbags will tell you the proportion of total crude protein in the mixed feed. However, this alone says little of the amino acid profile of the product. In the plant kingdom, each forage and grain species has a different profile of amino acids. Feeding one plant type to an animal may provide sufficient total protein but will only supply some of the required amino acids.

The essential amino acids are provided in the diet, digested by the animal and assembled in specific proportions to build protein. As a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the animal’s ability to assemble protein is limited by the specific amino acid that is deficient. If an amino acid is deficient, then the unused quantities of other amino acids are evacuated as nitrogenous waste: faeces, urine and gas. The primary cause of the high ammonia content and the bad smell in some barns is the drive to push production with excessive protein levels or unbalanced amino acids.

The average adult animal producing meat, milk or young needs a total feed (hay, pasture and grain) containing about 16% crude protein. Forage is the primary source of protein in the case of ruminants, so the grain supplement is designed to complement the quality of the protein in the forage. Nitrogen-fixing legumes such as alfalfa, clover and trefoil in the forages are the key protein feeds. In the grain mix, protein comes from legumes such as soybeans, dehydrated alfalfa and peas, but also from oilseeds including flax, sunflower and canola. Cereals such as corn, barley, oats and wheat are from grass plants and are relatively poor suppliers of protein.

Calories are fuel

Energy is required to fuel the metabolism of the high production animal. Without sufficient energy (intake of calories), the metabolism slows down to satisfy the basic body needs. The animal needs energy to maintain health, move around, produce body heat in the winter, resist stress and disease and metabolize amino acids into protein to grow, lay eggs, produce milk or young. The high protein feeds of young animals require equally high amounts of energy to metabolize all that protein.

While the legumes supply protein, the main energy sources are the sugars in the hay, resulting from photosynthesis and the starch in the cereal grains. Corn is the leading source of energy with its large starchy kernels and a low fibre and protein content. Vegetable oils and fats, high in oilseeds such as soybeans and flax, are important energy sources. Barley, oats and wheat are also high in starch and compare well to corn in terms of energy content but they are more difficult to digest than corn, as the high fibre content ties up some protein and energy.

Adding vitamins and minerals for improved health

A wide range of major minerals (including phosphorous, calcium and sodium) and minor minerals (such as selenium and magnesium) are required to assimilate amino acids, build protein and body tissue, develop bones, maintain a strong immune system and execute many critical body functions. Compared to the ancestors of modern livestock, contemporary agriculture has developed high performance breeds and developed ambitious production expectations that cannot be easily met by the natural mineral and vitamin contents of the feed; even high quality organic feed.

We should expect and often do find that the nutrient components are higher in organic grains and forages versus conventional feeds thanks to proper crop rotations and good soil management. However in reality, the nutritional value of organic crops is inconsistent. The nutritional profile of the crop depends on the nutritional profile of the soil plus any soil amendments and organic fertilizers that the farmer may add. Fundamental nutrient deficiencies in the soil, such as selenium or other regional mineral variations will cause deficiencies in the crop. Weather variations, soil tilth and soil microbial activity will affect how plants assimilate minerals from the soil.

Feed manufacturers purchase ingredient grains from different sources and must ensure uniform levels of minerals and vitamins. Therefore, the feed manufacturer carefully supplements the animal’s diet to match the body’s needs for health, fast growth and optimal production levels. Minerals and vitamins are scientifically evaluated for each part of the life cycle.

On the farm, regular soil samples allow the farmer to adapt the crop rotation, purchase soil amendments, correct mineral deficiencies and ensure the optimal quality and yield of the crops. Forage sampling will identify deficiencies that come through in the feed. The farmer can then purchase feed supplements to balance the animal’s diet and maintain optimal livestock yields and quality.

Choosing the appropriate mineral premix

At Homestead Organics, we have three approaches to help the farmer resolve mineral imbalances in the livestock diet.

  • Customize a mineral blend for your farm. Based on the analysis of the forages and on-farm grains, particularly on ruminant farms, we will customize the mineral supplement to match the exact requirements of the herd or flock. Thus, the farmer only buys what is required, ensures an optimal diet and avoids excesses. The supplement can be a simple mix of specific minerals or an adaptation of the house blend or Bio-Ag premium blend described below.
  • A basic blend for most farms. Homestead Organics’ house mineral blend is a general purpose mineral premix containing essential minerals (calcium, phosphorous, selenium, magnesium, sulphur, sodium) plus kelp, vitamins A-D-E and trace mineral salt. It is used in all our house feeds, with supplemental calcium and vitamin B complex to satisfy certain species. The house blend suits most mixed farms without detailed forage reports, with low stress levels, good husbandry and moderate yield expectations.
  • A premium blend for the demanding farm. The Bio-Ag premium premixes start with the same essential ingredients as the house blend. They also contain probiotics - a lactobacillus fermentation byproduct and an enzyme package from barley grass. Just as people find that eating yogurt improves digestion, feeding probiotics to livestock tends to lead to better feed efficiency, lower rates of digestive problems and greater overall health. The premium blend also contains a wide range of chelated trace minerals and micronutrients, which are more easily assimilated by livestock. Although more expensive, the various Bio-Ag premixes are specifically designed for each production cycle of each species. They suit larger farms with higher stress levels and more ambitious production expectations.

Copyright © 2003 by Homestead Organics Ltd

All rights reserved. Printed in Canada. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.