Ask Alice: Pellets vs. whole grains

Posted on 15. Feb, 2016 by in Ask Alice

Q: Could you talk about pellets versus whole intact grains?  Which is healthier?  Which is most efficient?

A: Before we built our feed mill I believed that whole grains were the best possible nutrition available for most animals. We did not expect to really use the pellet milling machinery that we bought with the rest of the old milling equipment. Our first couple of years we made “mash” feeds mostly, starting with whole grains and just chopping and mixing them. The owners loved the look of the feed and we all thought we were doing the best we could do to give the animals the freshest, most digestible feed possible. We thought pellets were just a way to disguise crummy ingredients, and since we intended to make a top quality feed we expected to have little use for a pellet milling system.

Now nearly 15 years down that road I have come nearly full circle on my views of pellets. I say “nearly” because there are certainly plenty of bad pellets out there, and it is also true you can’t tell if a pellet is made of good or bad materials unless an animal simply won’t eat it or does poorly on it. When buying in raw materials for our mill grain brokers have often offered us grain dust pellets in truckload lots. We don’t buy them, but a lot of mills do, and those are pellets that are literally junk from the bottoms of bins and railcars.

I like to make pellets now because we still start with whole grains. They start out whole, they just aren’t whole anymore.  We simply hide the things that the animal needs but does not necessarily want inside the pellet and still have the freshest, most nutritious feed possible. Instead of just hiding grain dust and fillers like grass seed screenings, we can make a pellet with the exact same ingredients as a mash feed using whole grains instead of junk.

What we do hide is the vitamins and minerals…you know how nasty a bottle of vitamins smells when you open it and sniff? It’s unavoidable. Vitamins do smell bad. In a mixed feed, whether a chop, a mash or whole grains, the “micros” like vitamins and minerals tend to sift down to the bottom of the feeder. I don’t blame the animals for turning up their noses at it. I wouldn’t voluntarily eat vitamins if they weren’t in a human-type pellet (a pill) either.

What a pellet does that I like is that it cuts down on waste. Pellets all look the same so animals cannot sort out just the parts they like. That is not a big problem with pigs, who like pretty much anything they see, but it’s important when the feed gets bounced out of the feeder onto the ground. If it’s a pellet it is still recognizable as feed and they will still eat it. That’s especially true of birds.

There has been so much research investigating the relative digestibilities of whole versus processed grains it’s not even a question anymore, provided the grains you are working with are equal in food value and freshness. Processed junk is still just junk. But good quality materials that are ground, rolled, or otherwise sort of pre-chewed work better than whole grain kernels do. There are some reasons for this that I’ll cover in the next article.

That’s my take on it. Whole grains are the best ingredients, but they are not necessarily better in their unaltered form. Whole grains freshly milled into well-formulated pellets are the most efficient and cost-effective feeds for most farm animals.

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