Coming Home to Roost – and Research

Treena Hein
Wednesday, 02 February 2011
By Treena Hein

Dr. Tom Scott’s return to Canada created a lot of excitement in agricultural circles in mid-2010, and it’s no wonder why. After building decades of expertise in the area of livestock (mostly poultry) feed, he is now installed as the University of Saskatchewan’s first Research Chair in Feed Processing Technology.

Tim Nelson, executive director of the Poultry Industry Council, welcomes the creation of the position. “With increasing population and a growing global middle class, demand for animal feed will continue to grow at the same time ingredients become more expensive,” he notes. “We need to ask ourselves how we’ll cost-effectively satisfy the future nutritional needs of the Canadian poultry industry. Clearly, we will need to rely on being able to more efficiently and effectively extract nutrients from feed ingredients, process feed in a way that makes it more digestible, develop better balanced rations and still keep it palatable – and this is where the recently appointed Research Chair in Feed Processing Technology comes in. We welcome Dr. Scott’s appointment and congratulate the University of Saskatchewan on its foresight in creating such an opportunity for industry.”

A Saskatchewan Globetrotter
Scott received a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), followed by a master’s in genetics at McGill in Montreal. He then took a few different job positions, including extension work for poultry farmers in Saskatchewan. “I then did my PhD at the University of Sydney in Australia, returning to Canada to the University of Alberta for postdoctoral work,” says Scott. More globetrotting followed – back to Australia for a research associate position, on to Nova Scotia and British Columbia with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, back again to Australia to take a professorship, and finally to Holland, for a stint in private industry.

He had served as the research director for Provimi in Brussels for four years when the research chair position was created. “It’s very exciting – it’s a unique opportunity to work with industry partners and understand how different aspects of processing can influence the added-value for feed for all livestock species,” Scott says. “Feed makes up most of the cost of livestock production, and so small changes in feed efficiency or usability have the potential for huge global economic impact.”

Feed research centre
The Research Chair in Feed Processing Technology (created by the government of Saskatchewan) is a position through which feed for all species of livestock will be studied. A new Canadian Feed Research Centre is also being created. The plan to build it on campus was changed when the newest feedmill in the province (built in North Battleford in 1998) went bankrupt; U of S bought it and will create the Centre there instead. Using $13.3 million in federal, provincial and industry money, it will include a pilot feed production line and a pilot plant lab.

The main commercial part of the mill, licensed to Cargill, is currently up and running, and Cargill will contribute towards the Centre’s operating costs. “What we will be able to do at the Centre is thrilling,” says Scott. There will be several grinders feeding into several mixer options, and then the feed will be placed into a conditioner, where moisture, temperature and time can all be adjusted. Being able to control these three factors will be critical in Scott’s continuing quest to create consistency in feed. After conditioning, the feed will then be pelleted or extruded, after which it will be crumbled or placed into a vacuum mixer. “This mixer takes pellets, puts them under vacuum pressure and then as the vacuum is released, things like fat, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other bio-actives can be added. The objective is to protect the feed from losses in activity during storage or enable the additives to reach the animal’s gut in a more active state,” he says.

Better use of wheat and other grains
Tweaking temperature, moisture level and time at the feed conditioning stage may not sound terribly critical, but the capacity to do this is very significant. “We will be able to understand what combination of factors, what process, will create much more consistent feed from different types of and grades of feed ingredients,” Scott says. “We know what’s most suitable for different livestock species at specific ages, but created feed that consistently meets these criteria is the challenge.” There is basically only one process used at present to turn wheat into feed, and this creates inconsistent feed quality because wheat varieties and qualities are very different from each other. In western Canada in 2010, less than 40 per cent of harvested wheat was food-quality grade, with the rest, having been frozen or having gotten wet and dried, used for feed.

More specifically, Scott points out that there is 25 per cent difference in how quickly feed made from different wheat sources can be digested by poultry. “Digestibility and absorption have a lot to do with the feed going into solution in the chicken gut,” he says. “There are traits in the wheat that affect how well it mixes with water and goes into solution in the gut, and through studying different processing methods we will be able to adjust for these traits and make feed with consistently high digestibility.” Feed consistency is a large concern with broilers in particular. “If we can consistently provide feed that allows the producer to consistently obtain the desired market weight at the expected market age, it would be a huge boon to the industry,” Scott asserts.

Once he and his colleagues figure out what conditions (heat, moisture and time) are best to use on different wheats, Scott is very interested in using Near Infrared Reflectance (NIR) technology to predict what level of protein and other ingredients must be added after conditioning to achieve a higher quality feed, again, with consistency, an important goal. NIR is currently used for grading grain in Canada.

Another application for NIR was developed by BoMill a Swedish company to sort individual seeds for traits such as protein, hardness, moisture and starch. “It analyses and sorts individual seeds at a rate of 20,000 to 30,000 seeds every second,” says Scott. “That’s about 30 tonnes per hour, which is the speed a mid-sized feed mill runs at.” The technology could sort wheat entering a mill into categories for different types of processing and additions, but could also sort out any higher-quality grain for food consumption, which is sold at a much higher price. Scott says the cost of $10 a tonne to do this (including equipment and time) may seem high, “But it would facilitate sorting feed grain into high-quality grades at higher prices and produce feed fractions that may more consistently be improved by designed feed processing applications.”

Poultry’s place
The poultry industry has been a leader in using processed feed, he observes, and his long involvement in it means he has much to contribute in this Research Chair position. “At the same time, I am learning about feed for other animals,” he says. “We have the full gamut of researchers in the department who specialize in different livestock species, and I will be working with them closely.” In addition, Scott will work with industry to answer feed questions, will liaise with suppliers of feed grains and will also work on converting byproducts such as canola meal into feed.

Scott will split his time between U of S in Saskatoon and the Canadian Feed Research Centre, once it’s up and running in North Battleford, 1.5 hours’ drive away. While the Research Chair position was an obvious draw, he was also longing to return to Saskatchewan. “I like the space of the Prairies,” he says. “I’m a country boy. This unique opportunity also allows me to see my family much more often. This was the first Christmas I spent with them in over 25 years.”

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