Literally hundreds of different feeds can be successfully fed to livestock, which raises the need for feed composition databases. Animals require approximately 40 different nutrients to allow them to grow, reproduce, and produce milk, meat, eggs, or wool. Knowing how much of these 40 different nutrients a feed contains is necessary to properly formulate balanced diets. The National Research Council (NRC) publishes and updates the nutrient requirement series of domestic animals. These books are considered the “Bible” of animal feeding and are widely utilized by livestock producers, feed manufacturers, veterinarians, extension agents, and researchers. The back of each of these series contains information on the nutrient composition of feed ingredients particular to the species that it was written for. These tables are produced by various NRC subcommittees and are really the only feed composition tables that are subject to peer review.
Although the NRC publishes feed composition tables, it does not maintain a feed database. In fact, no national feed database exists in North America. Utah State University previously had the only feed database, but it was discontinued in 1990 after being transferred to the National Agricultural Library. Now, the only sources are a few private databases run by companies.
Within the NRC, each subcommittee develops its own estimates of the composition of feeds independently. Each subcommittee compiles as many feed data sets as possible to create an average that is most representative of the feedstuff in question. But this averaged value may not always be correct in all situations.
For example, cereal grains feed compositions are affected by the cultivar, climate, stage of maturity at harvest, the soil composition, fertilizer, and storage practices. Processing techniques that the feed industry uses also alter nutritional composition; so, one feed value will not always be representative of all samples.
Published values are also influenced by the techniques used to analyze the feedstuff. A major problem of building new databases out of old ones is that the older techniques used to analyze the feedstuff were not documented and were often simply not accurate. So, the bottom line is, virtually all of the feed composition values currently used really are not accurate enough. They belong to the horse and buggy age, and it is time to travel to the computer age.
A North American Feed Database that is flexible enough to address the needs of the livestock industry for the 21st century needs to be developed. A few years ago, the NRC published a book called “Building a North American Feed Information System,” which outlined the need for a national feed data base. I urge everyone to read the book and lobby for the re-establishment of a feed database.