Forage enzymes move from field trials to farms

Forage enzymes are currently a trendy topic in the world of ruminant nutrition. And a mounting stack of research supports claims that they can improve fiber digestion, thus allowing the cow to make better use of dry matter and increase milk production.

The U.S. introduction of a new enzyme product and application process earlier this year brings the concept from the field trial to the actual farm. So should you consider implementing it in your herd?

"I think there have been enough documented studies with positive results that dairy farmers can start looking seriously at this concept," says Karen Beauchemin, research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

In their work at Agriculture Canada's Research Centre in Lethbridge, Alberta, Beauchemin and colleagues have been doing research on forage enzymes since 1991.

"We started with the objective of increasing the value of straw and other poor-quality forages. But we quickly realized that the best results were with higher-quality forages," she recalls.

So the research team shifted its focus to how to get more out of high-quality forages and reduce the amount that the cow needs to eat. "By using enzymes we're not changing the feed, we're changing the animal's ability to utilize the feed," she says.

After working with both enzymes and direct-fed microbials applied to a variety of feedstuffs, they concluded that production responses to enzymes can be attributed mainly to improvements in fiber digestion, and ultimately energy availability.

"We've seen milk gains of 1 to 2 kilos (roughly 2-4 lbs) per animal per day, on average, in our studies," says Beauchemin. "But the key to those kinds of gains is that energy has to be the number-one limiting factor in the diet - not protein. We've seen the most response from energy-deficient animals such as high-producing dairy cows or rapidly growing steers in the feedlot.

"The other important factor in using enzymes is to make sure that everything else in the diet remains balanced after figuring in the addition of the enzymes," she adds. "You can't just add them and walk away."

Wet or dry? That question came up twice - regarding both the enzyme and the forage. Most of the research done at Lethbridge has pointed to the greater effectiveness of applying a liquid form of the enzyme to dry forage. "The dry feed acts like a sponge and provides a slow release of the product in the rumen," explains Beauchemin. "The enzymes didn't seem to work as well when applied directly onto silage."

She says the liquid enzyme products can easily be applied (they used a backpack sprayer) to dry hay, cubed forage, feed concentrate or in a total mixed ration (TMR).

Research at several universities in the U.S. has shown some positive results from applying enzymes to silage just before feeding. But results have been less consistent than those from the Lethbridge work, says Lumin Kung, University of Delaware ruminant nutritionist. "There are a lot of the hows and whys that we don't have figured out yet, but we are definitely seeing some positive trends with liquid enzyme applications."

There's plenty of confusion in the marketplace about currently available enzyme products, says Beauchemin. "Lots of products have names ending in `ase' or `zyme,' but that doesn't mean much in telling you what the product can do."

She says the products her group has had the most success with are what she calls "true" enzymes. And currently, relatively few of these products are commercially available in North America.

So how do you tell the difference between a true enzyme and a product that merely contains small amounts of enzymes? Protein level is one good indicator, since enzymes are basically protein. A protein content of at least 50-60% indicates that the product has a high amount of enzyme and less filler.

Price is another indicator, adds Beauchemin. "A true enzyme product will cost substantially more than a direct-fed microbial, for instance. If the product costs a couple of cents per head per day, you're not talking about a true enzyme product."

It's also important to make sure the company selling the product has plenty of research to back it up, she notes.

One of the newest products, introduced to the U.S. market earlier this year by Agribrands International, is a result of the Canadian research. The St. Louis-based company has acquired the licensing rights on the patented enzyme formulation and application process developed by the Lethbridge researchers. Called Promote NET (Natural Energy Technology), the "pure" enzyme product is available to farmers in a concentrated liquid form that is sprayed onto dry feeds using one of several simple applicator kits.

For dairy cattle, the liquid is applied at a rate of 4 grams/head/day on dry feedstuffs, even in TMRs, and is very easy to use, says Pierre Frumholtz, global director for Promote. "After just three months on the market here in the U.S., the product is being fed to over 10,000 cows.

"This is a new tool for producers and nutritionists to use to optimize the different ingredients being fed on each farm," he says. "It definitely requires a team approach - the producer working with his nutritionist - to make the most of his feedstuffs."

Price of the product now runs 15-20›/head/day, says Frumholtz. The high end of that range includes the services of a consulting nutritionist.

"You can also expect that price to come down in the coming year, as our sales volume increases and we get our infrastructure in place."

For more information about Promote NET, call Dan Miller, Agribrands International, at 314-812-0571, or e-mail him at pro mote@agribrands.com.