Market dynamics for soya bean meal have experienced major turbulence in the last few months.

Increased demand for soya bean meal, particularly from China, resulted in prices following a similar upward trend as for all ingredients, with soya bean experiencing the greatest lift and rising initially from €350/t ex-port to €450/t ex-port in mid-October.

There was a further hike in soya bean meal prices in January following significant shortages of the product on global markets.

This stemmed from a 20-day strike by port-side oilseed workers in Argentina, which caused major market disruption and delayed shipments of soya bean meal and related products such as soya hulls.

Shipments have resumed since early January

This resulted in soya bean meal increasing in price to €550/t ex-port with supplies not available in some cases even at this price.

Shipments have resumed since early January and supplies should now be coming back on track, which is timely given the increase in demand from mid-season lambing flocks.

Alternative ingredients

Some merchants were forced to change the formulation of feeds affected due to shortages and attempts to lower the price of product offerings.

Farmers purchasing rations or pelleted feeds for late pregnancy and early lactation feeding need to be mindful of any possible changes to feed formulation and explore the quality of ingredients used.

This is a view echoed by Teagasc researcher Tim Keady, who has extensive experience in concentrate formulation.

Tim says the main ingredients in a late-pregnancy concentrate should comprise soya bean meal, maize meal and barley, followed by rapeseed, soya hulls, beet pulp, maize distillers and maize gluten.

While maize meal has increased in price it is still being used at relatively high inclusion rates in feeds due to its superior feed energy value (approximately 14.8 MJ ME). Rapeseed has a high protein content (34% to 36%), and moderate energy content (approximately 12.3 MJ ME) and Tim says it can make a useful contribution at a moderate inclusion rate.

Likewise, he says soya hulls, beet pulp, maize distillers and maize gluten can all be used to good effect, but these should on no account be the primary feed ingredient.

The concentrate formulation used for this season’s lambing in Teagasc Athenry is as follows: 29% maize, 19% soya bean meal, 10% soya hulls, 10% beet pulp, 10% rapeseed, 5.5% maize distillers, 5% barley, 4% maize gluten, 5% molasses and 2.5% minerals and vitamins (13 MJ ME/kg DM).

Protein source

In terms of protein, no feed comes anywhere near comparing with soya bean meal as a complete protein source. It has a typical protein content of 48% and its energy content is among the best feeds available.

An added benefit is a significant percentage of the protein source is in the form of form of digestible undegradable protein (bypass protein).

The benefit of utilising soya bean meal as the primary protein source was also evident in research carried out by Tim in Athenry.

Two concentrates were formulated to have the same metabolisable energy content of 12.4 MJ ME/kg DM and protein concentration of 18% (as fed).

The study showed that lambs born to ewes offered the soya bean meal-based concentrate were 0.3kg heavier at birth and 0.9kg heavier at weaning

One concentrate had soya bean meal as the main protein source, while the other had a mixture of byproducts including rapeseed (34% crude protein), maize distillers (26% crude protein) and maize gluten (20% crude protein).

The study showed that lambs born to ewes offered the soya bean meal-based concentrate were 0.3kg heavier at birth and 0.9kg heavier at weaning.

Ewes offered soya bean were also in better condition and weighed heavier post-lambing, as detailed in Table 1.

The increase in cost was offset by the higher performance of lambs, with Tim concluding that it is more beneficial to formulate concentrates with soya bean than try to make cost savings by incorporating alternative feeds to make up the protein content.

Optimum protein content

Tim outlines that for prolific flocks, the advice is to offer a concentrate which has been formulated using soya bean meal as the main ingredient and contains 19% crude protein (ie 190g of crude protein per kilo as fed).

He says that grass silage is typically low in protein on sheep farms and this should also be taken into account, along with the volume of concentrates fed.

Where high volumes of concentrates are being fed to account for low feed value forage, then a lower protein requirement may suffice given the higher volumes consumed.

There are also reports of more farmers considering feeding a concentrate with a lower protein content initially and then changing to a high protein content diet in the final two to three weeks of gestation and in early lactation when demand increases substantially.

Tim makes the point that given the average flock size in Ireland is low and the volumes of meal fed at the start of supplementation are small, then there is not likely to be a major saving from progressing down this route.

Furthermore, significant changes in a ewe’s diet in late pregnancy are advised against.

If progressing down this route, the advice is to transition to the concentrate to be fed in late pregnancy with at least three weeks to go until lambing to prevent any issues with feed refusal and a resultant dip in energy intake.

Soya bean meal

Trials have also been carried out in Teagasc Athenry where excellent feed-value silage was available to examine the effect of replacing concentrates with a low level of soya bean meal (5kg over the period) fed as the sole supplement in late pregnancy.

The study found that reducing supplementation from the recommended level of 15kg concentrates in the study (appropriate for silage quality) to 5kg soya bean meal reduced lamb birth weight by 0.2kg and weaning weight by 1kg, while also increasing the age of slaughter by an average of two weeks.

As such, the conclusion was that it is beneficial to feed concentrates in late pregnancy rather than trying to limit supplementation to just soya bean meal.

Key points

  • Soya bean meal should remain the primary protein source in late pregnancy concentrate formulations.
  • Alternative feeds have a role, but their level of inclusion should be monitored and not negatively affect the energy content.
  • The recommended crude protein content in late-pregnancy feeds should be 19% for prolific flocks.
  • There is no incentive where high feed-value silage is available to eliminate concentrate supplementation and feed solely soya bean meal in late pregnancy.