Palm oil in the spotlight

18-12-2023 | Updated on 13-02 | |
Casey Bradley Swine nutrition
Photo: Canva
Photo: Canva

Swine nutrition and health expert Dr Casey Bradley finds it fascinating how life sometimes presents seemingly coincidental events that actually have deeper connections. Recently, a conversation about palm oil products for ruminants merged seamlessly with a newsletter spotlight on the same subject. It is as if the universe nudged her to delve into alternative energy supplies for our swine.

One pressing concern I have grappled with is the increasing diversion of soy and corn oil towards biodiesel. While there is a debate about land usage, the undeniable fact remains that we all need energy, whether it is animals needing it for sustenance or our insatiable desire for prompt Amazon deliveries.

Swine diets in the USA derive energy from:

  • Grains and legumes: Primarily corn and soybean meal, supplemented by wheat, sorghum and oats;

  • By-products: Items like distillers dried grains and solubles (DDGS), bakery and milk by-products; and

  • Fats/oils: Choices range from animal-based (e.g., poultry or tallow) to vegetable (e.g., corn or soy).

The beauty of energy is its calculability. Kansas State University, for instance, offers tools to determine the value of added fat in swine diets. But in terms of who has delved deeper into energy calculations, I tip my hat to Dr Dean Boyd for pioneering the re-evaluation of soybean meal’s energy value.

From a feed additive perspective it is the talk of the town: medium-chain fatty acids

But what about palm oil?

One of the main problems with palm oil is that 84% of the global supply comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, while production is also growing in Asia and Latin America due to global demand. Freight and import tariffs therefore complicate its value as an energy source for livestock in the USA. There are other political and environmental concerns as well around palm oil, including child labour laws and deforestation of tropical forests for plantations, which make this a challenging ingredient to consider.

Feed additive perspective

However, from a feed additive perspective it is the talk of the town: medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA). The heavy tariffs disappear when it is being exported as a salt. Early research with MCFA was conducted with coconut and palm oil being added as a fat source at 1–5% in the diets, but through the extraction of the specific fatty acid chains and then stabilisation as salts, the benefits of MCFA were able to be captured at a lower inclusion level. On a net energy basis for growing swine, palm oil is 32.42 MJ/kg dry matter (DM) versus corn oil at 34.00 MJ/kg DM, as was shown in research by Enkai Li and others at the China Agricultural University in 2018.

Palmitic acid

However, the true value of palm oil for lactating animals is palmitic acid (C16:0), for which palm oil trumps corn by 46.2% vs. 0.0% of the fatty acid profile. The reason is that palmitic acid is a valuable fat source for milk production, because it is absorbed via the lymph system rather than the portal vein and has consistently been proven to increase milk fat yields, especially for our ruminant friends.

With all the challenges we are having with large litters and piglet survivability pre-weaning and post-weaning, should we consider palm oil to “butter” up our weaned pigs and give them extra energy stores to go and thrive downstream?

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