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High tech feed research on the Prairies

The Canadian Feed Research Centre puts tech to work to increase the value of feed grain

From the outside, the Canadian Feed Research Centre doesn’t look much different from a regular feed mill. But the Centre, tucked into an industrial area of North Battleford, is a national institution, says Rex Newkirk.

“It’s the only one in Canada of this nature. It’s one of the very few in the world where we have integrated production, where we can look at all stages of production with full spectrum.”

Newkirk is the research chair of feed processing technology at the University of Saskatchewan, which owns the Canadian Feed Research Centre.

Although farmers aren’t exactly thrilled when their crops are down-graded to feed, the livestock feed market is an important one for crop producers.

“The feed industry’s really designed to use ingredients that we don’t use elsewhere,” says Newkirk. “And that’s why I think the feed industry is so important to the whole agriculture industry.”

The feed industry generally isn’t fussy about damage such as sprouting or insect feeding. But when it comes to toxins such as DON, “that changes everything,” says Newkirk. The question becomes how to use those ingredients without putting livestock, or people, at risk, he adds.

The Canadian Feed Research Centre’s objective is to try to get as much value out of feed grain as possible. Commercial feed mills need to pump out a lot of product because they’re in a very low-margin industry, Newkirk says. That limits how much research they can do into new products or processes.

But the Canadian Feed Research Centre can look at things in more detail, he explains during a tour of the facility, because they’re not holding up commercial production. They also have three different milling lines — lab, pilot, and industrial-scale.

Dropping DON in barley

The Sask Barley Development Commission has provided seed money to research ways to drop DON levels in barley. Newkirk says Taryn Garew, a grad student from North Carolina, will be working on the project.

One possibility is to mimic the scouring process used in flour mills. Typically the system includes plastic fingers that knock the seeds against each other and aspiration.

“It knocks some of that fusarium loose. When they pneumatically move it, that fusarium’s reduced by about 70 per cent,” says Newkirk. Whether that will work in barley remains to be seen, but Newkirk hopes to cut DON levels with a similar system.

They’ll also be using that seed money to see whether oxidizing barley has potential. In a jar, under high moisture and temperature, ozone will break down the DON. In fact, some people are already hooking up ozone generators to the air intakes on their bins.

But that’s “a totally different scenario than in the lab,” Newkirk says. Bins are drier and colder than the jars in the lab, he explains.

However, Newkirk hasn’t ruled out using ozone in bins. The Canadian Feed Research Centre will look at whether it’s possible, and if so, under what conditions it might work best.

High-tech grain sorting

One ways to add value to a load of fusarium-damaged wheat or barley is to sort the good from the bad.

The BoMill is one tool that can do just that. The Canadian Feed Research Centre has one of the first BoMill TriQs, thanks to a Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi) investment a few years ago.

Cigi took an investment investing in that new technology, Newkirk says. “But so far it seems to be working out fairly well.”

The Swedish-designed BoMill TriQ rotates the grain in a large drum. Slots in the drum catch the seeds, and a near-infrared transmittance light shines through the seeds. Equipment in the machine measures the light on the back-side.

An algorithm converts that measurement into a value. Then an air nozzle above the slot blows the seed into one of three compartments–good quality, bad quality, or odd balls. A typical odd ball would be wild oat. Newkirk says the BoMill can sort 30,000 seeds per second, or three tonnes an hour.

BoMill doesn’t measure fusarium itself, as the disease is found in such small quantities, Newkirk says. “What it’s doing is measuring the chemical changes in the seed because of the infection.”

Newkirk says they ran samples from the 2014 wheat harvest through the BoMill. Samples ranged up to 35 per cent fuzz. The BoMill dropped the fusarium significantly in wheat with three to 10 per cent fuzz. The BoMill could also tidy up the 35 per cent fuzz samples, but they had to run the samples twice, Newkirk says, and only 35 per cent of those seeds made the cut.

Sask Barley has also invested seed money to look at sorting fusarium-damaged barley. The priority is to get as much value as possible from a batch of barley. Eventually for farmers that might mean sending some very high-DON seed to feed insects, which in turn become chicken feed.

“Or if it means you can get into pig feed — or if it means you can get into malt beer, you can get a malt grade out of it — fantastic.”

BoMill is also lending the Canadian Feed Research Centre an IQ sorter for several months. The BoMill IQ is a newer, smaller model that can sort grain into six streams. Researchers will be able to work with smaller batches. Plus, the IQ uses discs instead of drums to catch the seeds, which are handier, Newkirk says.

When they first calibrated the BoMill IQ, they used the visual grading system. But since the industry uses DON counts now, the Canadian Feed Research Centre will do the same.

So how might the BoMill fit into the grain industry?

Flaman is selling the BoMill in Canada. Newkirk says some are going into commercial production, in durum mills, for example. “But durum’s a pretty consistent product.”

“As much as it pains me to say, I think a lot of it’s going to end up being done at a seed cleaning plant or on-farm. Because I think once we start getting into blended mixes, it’s harder to clean it out, using technology like this or any other technology,” says Newkirk.

That’s because of the way the BoMill sorts seed. For one thing, the slots are sized to catch seeds. The Canadian Feed Research Centre has four drums for its original machine–one for barley, one for durum, and two for wheat.

A load of hard wheat, soft wheat, and durum mixed together would just confuse the calibration, he says. “The closer we are to production, I think the better off we are.”

The scale also means it’s better suited for seed cleaning plants or farms. Newkirk says it’s basically something a farmer would set up and monitor on an iPhone.

The initial investment is fairly high — about half the price of a combine, Newkirk says. Operation costs are more reasonable — about $10 per tonne, including depreciation over three years.

Newkirk says it’s a good idea to go slow.

“If we go in with our eyes open, we have a much better chance of succeeding.”


Feed for all creatures great and small

The Canadian Feed Research Centre has equipment at scales ranging from lab, to pilot, to indus- trial, giving it a lot of flexibility to experiment with different diets.

For example, one of Newkirk’s colleagues is studying the effect of different barley types on obesity in mice. But where would a researcher source five different customized barley diets in mouse-sized batches? Why, at the Canadian Feed Research Centre, of course.

On the livestock side, the Canadian Feed Research Centre is working on medicated feed for range cows. Feeding medicated pellets on pasture presents a couple of practical issues For one, the small pellets are likely to get lost in the grass. The second big problem is that cows have a social hierarchy. The older “boss” cows tend to eat more than their share of pellets.

Staff and researchers at the Canadian Feed Research Centre are experimenting with a briquette-maker to try to get around these problems. The briquettes are large enough that they shouldn’t get lost in the grass. Plus they take more time to chew than pellets. That should give the younger cows a chance to get their share.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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