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13th September 2021

Why research for neonates is crucial

AB Neo’s considerable expertise in young animal nutrition is the perfect route to challenge how we can push the boundaries of neonate research and question how consumer influence will inevitably control supply chains in the future. In an interview with Simon Tibble, AB Neo’s Technical Director, we asked him to tell us how their newly reorganised business is approaching these issues.

For many years, the four AB Agri businesses which now form AB Neo and collectively focus on young animal nutrition have invested significantly in both university and commercial trials to improve animal efficiency and on-farm production profitability.  As AB Neo looks to the future, the importance of expanding their knowledge of feeding neonates in an ever-changing environment is a critical priority for the business.

“We require healthy, productive young animals that will go on to deliver full value over their entire lifetime”, Simon explains.  “Early life nutrition drives both its physical and psychological development; if it’s done correctly, the animal is not only healthier, which of course impacts positively on welfare, sustainability and less reliance on medication, but producers also benefit from the full lifetime value of the animal.”

The importance of research

The drivers of advancing nutrition are certainly broader today, according to AB Neo.  Whilst testing product ideas, refining them and demonstrating their benefits is key, research within the business is about more than that.  

“It’s also about focusing on the changing consumer requirements, reduced antibiotic usage, and learning how new and novel raw materials can benefit pig production, including their impact on a more sustainable production system in creating more from less by adding value to low quality ingredients”, Simon clarified.

“As a newly reorganised business, we have brought together a significant range of nutrition expertise – from PhD’s and MSc’s to veterinary proficiency in different production systems and nutrition approaches seen around the world.  We not only recognise how our new structure’s exchange of technical knowledge will generate improved market solutions more quickly, but we anticipate that ideation and new concept innovation will flourish.”

Centre of Excellence

Neonate nutrition fit for future customer demands has led the business to formalise their research strategy into three core development steps, with a new emphasis on ‘near market’ work to ensure innovation is commercially reflective.

In the past, the individual neonate businesses have formed close partnerships with universities and carried out hundreds of trials across decades, offering innovation and feeding efficiencies to their customers.  Under the new structure, this process will continue but with an emphasis on ‘blue-sky’ thinking and measuring the neonate’s reaction to stimuli at a physiological level.

“For the second sector of our strategy, we’re thrilled to announce we will be commissioning our AB Neo Centre of Excellence research farm in Spain”, Simon continued.  “It will be on-stream in early 2022 to take its first placement of up to 8400 piglets, and this facility will allow us to test class-leading innovation in ‘near market’ conditions.

“The state-of-the-art unit will have links to the maternity farm, allowing for pre-weaning nutrition evaluation, as well as to the grower/finisher farms to fully evaluate impacts on lifetime performance.  

“It’s a very exciting time, predominantly because we’re giving our experts all the freedom, empowerment, and resources to become a leading influence in safe, sustainable food production.  However, it’s very much a dual-purpose asset with our customer input on innovation and ideation being very important to its success.”

The final sector in Neo’s strategy is the introduction of new Application Farms; a series of commercial farms in they key swine markets to test concepts on units representative of local genetics, management and weaning ages before they are rolled out to the wider customer base.  “This comprehensive approach means we will be absolutely confident that when we go to market, our recommendations and products will perform as we expect under local conditions and add value to our customer’s business”, Simon added.

Future focus

On the horizon for the European pig industry is the prohibition of the use of therapeutic zinc reduction and the greater control of antibiotic usage, which has been the focus of more than five years’ research within AB Neo.  Whilst great advances have been achieved in nutrition to prepare for the June 2022 deadline, the business knows that they cannot risk taking their ‘eye off the ball’ to all production challenges. 

“First and foremost, we have consumer pressures”, Simon explains.  “The consumer is increasingly demanding higher animal welfare standards which is applauded; however, our challenge is the balance between optimal welfare and the safe and sustainable production of meat.  It’s something that will not lessen in importance, so it will remain at the centre of our work moving forwards.”

From a physiological perspective, the business is broadening its understanding of microbiota and how nutrition impacts on gut development.  “We have a lot of concepts looking at the development of microbiota and how the ability to influence it in the first 10 weeks will positively reflect in lifetime performance.  Stronger piglets at weaning will obviously cope better with reduced antibiotics, so this aspect is highly important work”, Simon added.

AB Neo’s customers also feature centrally within their future research strategy with larger customers having more ‘voice’ in the production chain.  Transparency will be critical, according to Simon, and the partnerships generated will be much more collaborative than just nutrition to look at wider influences, for example meat quality. 

Examples of success

Today, not only does the business now have a substantial central technical reference library to draw from, but a series of university projects, alongside our own investigation resources, have been developing and implementing a new understanding of fibre and protein digestion in piglets and how these new understandings can be applied in the development of non-zinc dietary programmes.

“We’re on the edge of a very exciting time”, Simon concluded.  “As a group we can leverage our technically strong and diverse knowledgebase so that we arrive at conclusions faster and more efficiently than ever before.  We have set out to become leaders in neonate nutrition, and I believe our customers will be the winners.”