End User Focus: Feeding the future

By Jessica Roberts
Published: Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Food security has risen to a challenge of global proportions and animal feed minerals such as magnesia have a crucial role to play in securing food for the future

Food security is a key agenda for many countries at present. Rising global population, combined with sustainability issues and competition from non-food crops, has placed the issue at the forefront of political awareness.

Since 2004 prices and demand for most grains has increased, yet production has been unable to keep pace. The last five years has seen a series of extreme weather events in major food-producing regions, and sharp rises in fertiliser costs, ensure that international food prices have topped unprecedented levels.

Last year feed and food grains were hit particularly hard by poor weather: Russia saw its worst drought for 50 years, while water-strapped Australia was inundated by heavy rains downgrading the country’s food crops.

Letting their food go down: cows are one of the
many ruminant animals that benefit from
magnesia-rich feed additives, preventing
magnesium deficiency that can lead to grass staggers.

Volatile grain prices have pinched the margins of animal protein producers, with poultry feed in particular having a sharp effect on the price of eggs and meat. In China, food price inflation was reported to be at 10% in October 2010.

However, perhaps less reported than grain supply and prices is the influence of animal feed minerals on the meat and dairy market. Although a number of industrial minerals are well documented for their fertiliser applications in the agricultural sector, more still are used in animal feed markets either as a source of nutrition or in the application of the feed itself.

Nutritional minerals in animal feed include limestone (calcium source), magnesia (for magnesium), phosphates (phosphorous source) and salt (for sodium), among others (see panel).

Livestock animals with two stomachs (ruminants) have historically been the largest consumers of magnesia-based feeds. One of the primary reasons is because of magnesium’s ability to prevent a condition known as grass tetany, or grass staggers.

Grass tetany is a disorder characterised by involuntary spasms of the muscles in cattle brought on by a deficiency of calcium and magnesium. It arises from cattle consuming fast-growing spring grasses high in nitrogen while being inherently low in magnesium and calcium. Both MgO and MgSO4 can be used to provide supplemental magnesium to dairy and beef cattle.

Figure 1: World feed production (m. tpa)

Source: Feed International

US magnesia munch

One of the largest producers of agricultural magnesia is USA-based Premier Magnesia LLC (formerly Premier Chemicals), which produces caustic calcined magnesia (CCM) for the animal feed industry under the trade name Magox¨. Premier offers three Magox products: Feed Grade, Feed Grade 100 and Magox 93 HR.

The company mines and processes these grades at its facility in Gabbs, Nevada, manufacturing the CCM using three Herreshoff furnaces continuous, multiple hearth kilns which utilise natural gas to prevent dioxin contamination. Dioxins often result from the use of furnaces that burn “dirtier” fossil fuels, such as coal.

Quality and safety in the food chain have gained additional importance in recent years. To address these key issues, the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) has implemented a Safe Feed/Safe Food certification programme that Premier’s Gabbs facility obtained in 2009.

The purpose of the AFIA programme is “to establish and promote generally accepted food safety guidelines to ensure continuous improvement in the delivery of a safe and wholesome feed supply that promotes the growth and care of animals”. The programme requires a third party to inspect feed producers’ facilities regularly. In addition, producers must provide detailed written documentation to verify compliance with the Safe Feed/Safe Food programme.

Compliance to the programme is beneficial for US feed producers, whose minerals are in many cases crucial to the health of numerous livestock animals. But recent high prices have forced some farmers to lower their minerals use, according to producers.

“Many dairy and beef farmers cut back on their mineral feed supplements when prices increased in 2008, and they have continued at these lower nutrient levels in many cases or looked at alternative lower cost supplements,” Dave Johnson, marketing manager at USA-based Premier Magnesia LLC, told IM.

The reasons for price increases range from higher production costs to freight and energy, but in the case of CCM it is also competition with the steel industry a significant consumer of magnesia-based refractory bricks and linings that has contributed to cost margins.

“It is expected that as the steel market grows so too will the demand for magnesia worldwide,” Johnson explained.

In 2008 Premier completed the installation of a third Herreshoff furnace at its magnesite-brucite Gabbs facility, increasing capacity for CCM and Mg(OH)2 slurry. Prior to this increase, Premier produced 150,000 tpa of CCM and Mg(OH)2 at the Gabbs site. The company says its additional capacity will allow it to supply any increased demand from its markets.

Premier’s primary market for animal feed is the USA. With continuing restrictions on export licenses from China and increasing costs for imported magnesite and ocean freight, Premier believes US suppliers will gain an advantage in the domestic market.

In terms of consumption, the US animal feed market is expected to be flat in 2011 as dairy farmers continue to be challenged by low milk prices, Premier revealed.

“A number of dairies have closed or consolidated. The heard size remains about the same as 2010 as most of the cows were moved to other dairy operations and not slaughtered,” Johnson explained.

Figure 2: EU feeds by species (‘000s tpa)

Source: Feed International

Global feed demand

Feed production by commercial and industrial mills (for all species) is estimated to have increased slightly in 2010, with Feed International reporting a demand upswing in H1 2010 followed by uncertainty in the second half of the year. The publication put world feed production at 717.6m. tonnes in 2010, a slight increase on 2009’s output which totalled 707.6m. tonnes.

Promising dairy markets were observed in Europe although it was noted that milk production had increased relative to the amount of feed used. In Latin America, upswings were observed for chicken and hen feed in addition to increases in cattle and pig markets. In Asia, meanwhile, poultry and aquaculture proved to be the largest feed markets for countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam.

Feed International, in its World Feed Panorama for 2010, said that although global feed production increased last year it was relatively small compared to the recovery initially expected. One explanation is the price of grain feed which gained in H2 reducing farmers’ confidence in expanding livestock numbers.

The outlook for this year is volatile at present and will probably depend on future grain and mineral feed prices. Considering the issue of food security, however, any dips in feed production are likely to be short-term: the world’s population needs food, and it is not getting any smaller.

Figure 3: World feed production by region (718m. tonnes)

Source: Feed International

Animal feed: nutritional minerals

a primary source of calcium, which strengthens bones to prevent rickets. It also strengthens eggshells and increases egg production in chickens. Stronger shells equates to fewer breakages and greater profitability. Oyster shells are also used in some countries as an alternative to limestone.

Magnesia: caustic calcined magnesia is commonly used to add magnesium to feed, and can come in the form of a fine powder or incorporated into lick-blocks. Magnesium is crucial to the health of ruminant livestock and especially for grazing and lactating animals during spring and autumn. During these periods there is a risk of magnesium deficiency, which can lead to tetany or grass staggers. A contributing factor is when animals feed on fast growing new grass grown with nitrogen fertilisers.

Phosphates: supplied in a variety of products with dicalcium phosphate being one of the most popular forms. Phosphorous, important for strong bones and a healthy metabolism, is vastly consumed by poultry and pigs.

Salt: essential for all animals, providing an extra source of sodium. Main consumers are cattle and chickens.

Other minerals: trace elements including cobalt, copper, iodine, iron oxide, selenium and zinc are also staple animal feed minerals, although generally used in smaller quantities than those discussed above.