Efficient livestock feeding and its challenges for plant cultivation

24.02.2017

The annual meeting of the Swiss Society of Agronomy (SSA) on February 16 at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) was devoted to the topic of plant production for the animal nutrition of the future. Options for more efficient and thus more sustainably structured livestock feeding were discussed.

By Marcel Anderegg, MS Agriculture, Federal Institute of Technology Zurich/ Project leader, Swiss programme, Biovision

The importation of concentrated fodder is controversial, because it is partly produced on former rainforest soil. Moreover, it can also be in competition with the local food production of the producing countries. Sometimes, both factors apply. To avoid this, it is important to find ways to boost feed production in Switzerland itself. 

In his presentation, ETHZ Professor Michael Kreuzer emphasised the difficulties of feeding the high-performance animals that have been created by major advances in breeding in species-appropriate ways. For example, in order to maintain the meat proportion, egg production or dairy output of these farm animals, the feed has to contain high-quality energy-giving components and a high percentage of protein. Additionally, animal husbandry in particular generates a huge amount of environmentally polluting ammonia gas emissions, which more efficient feeding could reduce. This is yet a further reason why the nutrient composition of feed rations should be adapted as much as possible to the needs of the animals, which of course vary among the different livestock species.

Sought: Alternatives to soybeans

Andreas Lüscher of Agroscope, the Swiss federal centre for agricultural research, reviewed the past 25 years of fodder research and underlined the importance of carrying out long-term examinations in the open air at different sites. At the centre of the latest research in forage harvesting is sustainable intensification. In various studies, the value of legume plants as a protein component in the diet is being examined, with the aim of becoming less dependent on soy. Even in systems research, where non-monetary ecosystem services come into play, Lüscher sees a great need to help augment the number of location-adapted productions. Thanks to new technical aids and methods, there is hope for further breeding advances in plant cultivation. The goal is the development of fodder plants that can fulfil these diverse requirements. If ecologically sensible methods are subsequently used to cultivate these crops, this would be in keeping with the approach of Biovision.

How much animal production can the earth withstand?

Anna Katarina Gilgen of the ETHZ grassland sciences group discussed the different and valuable ecosystem services that grasslands contribute. These benefits depend on the amount of biodiversity in the system. Besides preserving genetic diversity, they also provide for excellent coarse fodder. Last but not least, grassland could make a major contribution towards fighting climate change by building up biomass for use as a large potential carbon sink.

It is extremely desirable to have well-coordinated collaboration between the scientific disciplines of fodder production and animal nutrition, as this brings about lower losses thus reducing stress on the environment. It is well known that animal husbandry is responsible for a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. Irrespective of the farming and feeding systems, the question needs to be raised as to how much livestock or consumption of animal products is ultimately sustainable for our planet. In conclusion, fodder crops should not be in competition with food production. Cooperation is essential if we want to reach the SGD 2 goal of no hunger, which is at the heart of Biovision's activities.