Giving chickens whole grain is championed to lift meat production

Adding whole grains to chicken feed boosts meat production efficiency and could improve global food security. It’s also likely to be good for backyard chickens, says Sydney scientist Amy Moss.

Amy’s research at the University of Sydney’s Poultry Research Foundation found that replacing some of the ground grain in chickens’ feed with whole grain both improved their digestion, and how efficiently they produced meat.

Chickens have a muscular organ called a gizzard in their digestive tract, which grinds the feed they eat so that it can be digested.

“We traditionally feed poultry pellets of finely ground ingredients,” says Amy.

“Chickens fed these diets don’t use their gizzards and so these organs get very flabby.”

“If you add more whole grains to chickens’ diets their gizzards get a workout, and just like us when we work out, the gizzard gets more muscle.”

As the fitter gizzard grinds up the feed it stimulates gastric juices which leads to the chicken producing more meat per kilo of feed eaten.

“I found that by replacing 30 per cent of ground grain with whole grain the chickens produced 7.7 per cent more meat per kilo of feed eaten,” says Amy. “And it also reduced the cost of milling and making the feed.”

“If more chickens around the world were fed whole grain, we could meet the protein requirements of roughly 114 million more people, equivalent to the population of Australia nearly five times over.”

Amy hasn’t tested her ideas on laying chickens but expects they would also benefit from some whole grain in their diet.

Amy is presenting her research at the 29th Australian Poultry Science Symposium, which starts in Sydney on Monday next week.

She is a PhD candidate at the Poultry Research Foundation at the University of Sydney, where she is researching how to improve poultry performance through better nutrition. Her research has been partially funded by the AgriFutures Australia Chicken Meat programme.

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Grass fungi bring economic benefits worth billions of dollars

Fungi that live within grasses are being harnessed by scientists to save the New Zealand economy billions of dollars.

Epichloë endophytes occur naturally in some grasses, such as those used to feed livestock on New Zealand farms. While some types of endophyte can be harmful to livestock, selected endophytes introduced to varieties of grass offer benefits such as deterring insect pests from feeding on the grasses, while minimising any negative health effects.

These opportunities have attracted scientists at AgResearch, whose focus over the past 35 years has been on selecting endophyte strains that can improve the productivity of pastures, while also improving livestock health.

“We have identified and commercialised endophyte strains of such benefit that they are now critical components of pastures in New Zealand,” says AgResearch Science Team Leader Dr Linda Johnson.

“The benefits are undoubtedly in the billions of dollars over time. These include increased farm productivity, reduced costs for animal health, and reduced pasture losses to pests and costs to control those pests. New endophyte strains alone contribute about $200 million every year to the New Zealand economy.”

The endophyte AR37 discovered by AgResearch scientists and released in 2006 for use in ryegrass proved a key success in reducing the impact of a range of pests, and consequently improving animal growth on farms.

Dr Johnson says there is scope for extending the use of endophytes beyond pasture grasses, to other endophyte species that can have benefits for a range of important crops, such as wheat.

“Microbial endophytes are gaining importance as options for the control of pests and diseases in many crops of economic significance,” Dr Johnson says.

The AgResearch team aims to extend the substantial knowledge and understanding they have gained from working with the Epichloë endophytes in grasses to delivering new endophyte options in those other crops.

Plant analysis backs up earlier advice on feeding swedes to cows

Results from analysis of Southland swede plants collected last season is supporting DairyNZ advice to farmers that feeding maturing swede crops increases the risk of ill-health in cows.

The industry body accordingly is recommending that farmers do not feed Herbicide Tolerant (HT) swedes to cows in spring when the animals are in late pregnancy or early lactation. DairyNZ is also advising caution if farmers are considering other leafy varieties.

DairyNZ arranged for swede sample analysis from 11 Southland farms in September last year following issues with cows becoming ill and some dying after feeding on swedes.

Staff collected swede samples, dissected plants as quickly as possible and froze the samples in liquid nitrogen to stop any spoiling of the plant material and breakdown of the glucosinolates (GSLs), the naturally occurring compounds in brassicas that have been linked to cow health problems.

Swedes were dissected into up to six plant parts so that each section could be analysed separately. Up to 150 plant parts were analysed from three swede varieties across the 11 different farms.

Key findings from the plant analysis are:

* Total GSL concentrations are higher in the HT swede variety than in the non-HT swede varieties. While there is not much difference in GSL concentrations in the bulb and crown between HT and non-HT swedes, GSL concentrations in the other plant parts are generally higher for HT swedes, with a pronounced difference in the upper leaf and upper stem.

* The risk of ill-health and death in cows increases when total GSL concentrations increase as swedes enter the reproductive stage (elongated stem, new leaf, flowers and seed heads).

* Different parts of the plants included different individual GSLs

* The concentrations of individual GSLs varied between plant parts.

* HT swedes have higher concentrations of GSLs in “reproductive” plant parts, increasing the risk of ill-health for cows grazing swedes with elongated stems and the appearance of flowers.

* No single GSL stands out as significantly different between plant variety and plant part.

DairyNZ Southland-South Otago regional leader, Richard Kyte, says the new plant data supports the current DairyNZ advice that farmers should be very cautious when feeding swedes.

“This analysis confirms that feeding maturing swede crops increases the risk of ill-health,” he says. “We’re continuing to advise farmers to focus on managing a number of factors involved in feeding swedes this season, including the proportion of swede that makes up the diet of their cows.

“And these new plant results back up our earlier farmer survey findings that feeding swedes on the milking platform (farm) in spring when cows approach calving and early lactation increases the risk of ill-health.

“The farmer survey we released earlier indicated that in spring 2014, there was a higher risk of ill-health for Herbicide Tolerant (HT) swedes compared with other varieties of swedes in spring. Given those findings and now the plant analysis, we’re recommending that farmers do not feed HT swedes to cows in spring when the animals are in late pregnancy or early lactation and when the risk of all the factors that can lead to ill-heath and potential cow deaths can rapidly combine. In spring, air temperatures are expected to increase rapidly, leading to “bolted swedes” and bolted HT swedes have much higher levels of total GSLs.

“At the time of planting their swedes, farmers have no idea what the following winter/spring is going to be like. The spring is a key risk time as swedes will be closer to going into the reproductive stage,” he says.

But Kyte says climatic and growing conditions for swedes this season are very different from last year.

“We identified through our farmer survey a departure from the ten year climate average for the region in 2014. The warmer air temperatures and fewer frost days may have enhanced both leaf growth and maturity last year. We’re seeing quite a different growth pattern this season. Plants don’t appear to be bolting. Last season was a bit abnormal,” he says.

The general advice being given to farmers is that special care is needed with HT swedes and other leafy varieties like Aparima Gold and Triumph, when warm air temperatures from northerly weather conditions cause swedes to regrow and change quickly.

DairyNZ is still monitoring the health of a small number of cows this season. It expects to release a final report to farmers in October.