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Organic producer trials vetch as soya alternative

Two hens

RESULTS from farmer-led trials could help UK poultry producers transition away from imported soya.

Sprouting wheat and vetch seeds, grain tailings, and processed beans were all found to offer good alternative nutrients for monogastric diets and could be grown within UK farming systems.

Most soya imported into the UK is used to manufacture food and feed livestock, but 40% of imports in 2019 were from sources with a potential risk of deforestation, according to the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya.

Regional, system-based sourcing

The conclusions of a three-year collaboration between farmers and researchers now offers a path towards a system based on regional feed production and sourcing. 

The farmers have been working with the Organic Research Centre in a field lab which was run through Innovative Farmers

“Soya is hard to beat nutritionally, and although it can be grown in the UK in certain areas, it’s unlikely to be in the volumes needed,” said Jerry Alford, Innovative Farmers field lab coordinator, and arable and soils advisor at the Soil Association.

“So, it’s about looking at what resources we have available, what we can grow, and how we can adapt these to produce our own alternative feeds, rather than importing them. 

We desperately need a more sustainable, stable, and secure feed source, and the way to do that is to grow more in the UK.

“For organic farmers, in particular, the trial results offer a way to achieve 100% organic feed without the carbon footprint associated with imported products, something that many producers have always felt goes against organic principles.”

The field lab was part of an EU H2020 funded research project, OK-Net EcoFeed. Farmers and researchers across 11 European countries spent three years investigating alternative home-grown protein sources for monogastrics.

Alternative protein sources

The field lab looked at three possible protein sources: Sprouting seeds; increasing the nutritional value of beans through heat treatment and dehulling; and saving grain tailings. 

All were found to have some value as home-grown feed sources. 

The trials have all been successful in their own way,” said Dr Lindsay Whistance, senior livestock researcher at the Organic Research Centre. 

“They’ve all highlighted existing potential in feedstuffs that can be adapted, helping to find solutions for reducing the need to import feed for pigs and poultry.”

Vetch for laying hens

Mike Mallett, who organically farms 3,000 laying hens in Suffolk, ran the sprouting seeds trial as part of the field lab. 

“I’ve been trying to take soya out of my chicken feed for nine years and have grown all sorts of crops including sunflowers and lupins,” says Mr Mallet.

“But our farm has either been too cold, or perhaps too alkaline. Vetch however, is something our farm can grow well.”

Vetch also had the advantage of being useful in his farming system, says Mr Mallet, since it fixes more nitrogen than peas and beans, and is an excellent inter-cropper, particularly with oats, with notable improvements to soil structure. 

Vetch seeds however contain toxins for monogastrics and tripsonin inhibitors, which affect egg-laying frequency and size. 

Germniation

But Mr Mallet found that he could reduce these while preserving other micronutrients and proteins by germinating the seeds. 

“It also means I have a green forage to feed the hens when they’re indoors during the winter when there is less outdoor forage,” says Mr Mallett.

He is now developing a sprouter that can produce hundreds of kilos of germinated seeds a week, and Mr Mallett believes the technology is scalable to other farms. 

And he now plans to implement a three-pronged approach to keep his chicken feed local: Vetch sprouts, switching to a laying hen breed that needs less intensive feeding and growing his own mealworms for added protein.