Meal: More Than Just Chicken Feed

As new alternative oilseeds are considered for biodiesel production, a big consideration is whether there will be a viable market for the meal.
By Susanne Retka Schill | January 15, 2009
In the search for new biodiesel feedstocks, a big part of the success for oilseeds is how the meal stacks up compared with the gold standard of protein supplements-soybean meal. Soybean meal is a dominant protein supplement globally and the soybean crush is primarily driven by demand in the feed market. That's probably a good thing, as soybeans contain about 80 percent meal and 20 percent oil. Even with a ratio that favors meal, the U.S. biodiesel industry got its start when the soybean industry was looking for alternative uses for their oil surplus. Soybean oil stocks are still plentiful, even with increased biofuels use, but the recent run up in commodity prices has biodiesel producers looking to diversify their feedstock base. The search is not only driven by the quest for economical feedstocks, but also with one eye on the food-versus-fuel debate. Preference will be given to new feedstocks that do not displace food crops.

Camelina Meal Niche
Camelina could be the first of the new oilseed feedstocks to approach commercialization (see "Oilseed Comes of Age" in the November 2008 issue). In the arid West, camelina may diversify the typical wheat-fallow rotation as it would have a minimal impact on wheat production. Several biodiesel producers are promoting the crop in Montana and neighboring states and Canadian provinces. A number of trials are just getting started to evaluate its performance in other regions.

Camelina yields can be as high as 2,000 pounds per acre and the seeds produce about 40 percent oil, leaving about 60 percent meal. Although the meal and oil content make camelina a promising feedstock for biodiesel, the meal can't be used as a feed supplement for animal production that eventually becomes human food without the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That has prompted the two main competing camelina promoters-Great Plains-the Camelina Co. and Sustainable Oils Inc.-and others to work together to get FDA approval. The camelina consortium is seeking FDA's generally regarded as safe (GRAS) rating. The cost to run tests on all the target species of animals, including poultry, fish, swine and beef could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars-hence the cooperation among competitors.

While older crops weren't put through this level of scrutiny, new crops such as camelina, field pennycress, algae, seashore mallow, moringa, Chinese tallow and others in development need the GRAS designation before the meal can be fed. Eric Murphy, an associate professor in the department of pharmacology, physiology and therapeutics in the University of North Dakota's school of medicine argues that camelina is not a new crop. He is working with Great Plain's founder, Sam Huttenbauer, on camelina's FDA application. Camelina has been grown in Europe for centuries and is used in Finland as a salad oil. The oil also has an excellent shelf life. The meal, however, is not considered safe by the European food safety agency, Murphy says, which is partly a result of the continent's efforts to protect its dominant oilseed crop-rapeseed. Europe's treatment of camelina impacts the FDA's attitude toward the oilseed crop, he says.

Camelina's glucosinolate content is the main concern in feeding the meal. Glucosinolates are the compounds that give mustards their kick, and renders mustard meal unpalatable for feed. Camelina actually has lower glucosinolate content than canola, but because data is scarce on the new crop, the FDA won't accept that argument, Murphy says. Also, the glucosinolate found in the oilseed crop is unique to camelina, he adds. Besides its unpalatability, glucosinolates affect thyroid function, which in animals can result in a failure to thrive or put on weight. Because poultry are the most sensitive to the compound, the first feed trials are being conducted on laying hens. The FDA needs to determine if the glucosinolates will pass through the feed, into the eggs and potentially cause thyroid problems in children who eat those eggs. Although FDA doesn't conduct the tests, it has to approve the researchers contracted to conduct the trials and the research plan.

A successful outcome in the poultry trials could be a boost for camelina meal. In addition to addressing the FDA concerns, the trials will evaluate how feeding camelina meal
impacts egg production and quality, and to determine if its high Omega 3 content will pass through to the eggs. If those tests are positive, camelina could become a high-value feed supplement for poultry, which are the largest consumers of soybean meal. Furthermore, Omega 3-rich eggs command a premium price among health-conscious consumers.

The FDA poultry ruling is expected early in 2009. An FDA-approved cattle trial is set to begin in the summer, Huttenbauer adds, and future trials will cover broiler hens, swine, dairy cattle and fish. Camelina has received a waiver for limited feeding in Montana, where up to 2 percent is allowed in beef cattle rations. "The problem is that putting only 2 percent in a ration doesn't seem worthwhile to manufacture the feed," Huttenbauer says.

Measuring Up to Soy Meal
Completing the feed trials and securing FDA's GRAS designation are the first steps in moving camelina meal into the animal feed market. The next is getting animal feeders, who will measure its performance against soybean meal, to accept the camelina meal. Animal feeders prefer soybean meal because it complements corn nicely in a feed ration, says Greg Lardy, a beef nutritionist at North Dakota State University. Last year, he wrote a paper titled "Biodiesel Benefits for Cattle Producers: Feeding Byproducts of Biodiesel Production" for the Western Organization of Resource Councils, many of whose members are interested in farm-based crushing and biodiesel production. "A lot of people were interested in biodiesel when diesel prices went up," Lardy says. With oilseeds yielding between 20 percent and 40 percent oil, that requires finding a use for the remaining 60 percent to 80 percent. "For on-farm processing, farmers will have to make the linkage with a meal market," he says.

Lardy reviewed various oilseed feedstocks and compiled data comparing the oil yields and the nutrient composition of several whole oilseeds and the nutrient content of the meal (see Meal Comparison chart). He also determined the nutrient content of the various meals using different extraction methods. Unlike large industrial crushers who typically use hexane extraction because it removes nearly all of the oil from the seeds, smaller crushers generally use expeller extraction, which leaves more residual oil in the meal. The residual oil becomes a positive in cattle feed rations, Lardy says. "It gives a substantial increase in energy so you don't need as much energy from the other grains used," he says.

All meals are compared with soybean meal, which is highly digestible, low in fiber, high in protein and has an excellent amino acid profile. Soybean meal's performance has made it the preferred protein source in most swine and poultry diets, two of the largest markets for protein meal in the US.


Camelina has a crude protein content of 27 percent, which jumps to 36.5 percent in meal that's been mechanically extracted. Huttenbauer expects most camelina will be cold pressed, which leaves some oil in the meal and drops the protein proportion. (That effect can be seen in the Meal Comparison chart, where the solvent extraction method produces the highest percentage of protein. Protein levels decrease using mechanical extraction and decrease more using a less efficient on-farm press.) Huttenbauer sees residual oil content as an advantage, however, as oil is often added back into rations produced using the hexane-extracted meal.

Among the alternative oilseeds being considered to supplement soy oil, canola has been around for a long time and canola meal has found its niche in the dairy industry. California dairies, in particular, buy canola meal from the Northern Plains, partly because it is closer for shipping purposes than Midwest-produced soybean meal. At better than 40 percent protein, the meal has a lower protein content than soybean meal's 50 percent protein. Canola could serve as an alternative oilseed in southern regions of the U.S., where winter canola can provide a cover crop with good yield potential and minimal inputs. A winter canola crop could provide another revenue stream for farmers, and not compete with summer crops planted after the canola is harvested in the spring.


Canola is also being considered for remediation of selenium-impacted soils in California. Gary Banuelos, an animal scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Parlier, Calif., is growing canola on high selenium soils, and testing the meal for feed while the oil is used for biodiesel production. The canola was grown on land where the soil and water are too high in selenium to grow food crops. The selenium-rich canola meal is being fed to dairy cows in another area where the micronutrient doesn't occur naturally in the soil and has to be added to feed rations. If successful, it would create a new use for canola in soil
remediation and new markets for the enriched meal.

Oil crops without feed applications also have potential uses. Jatropha developers, for instance, say the meal can be used as a natural fertilizer to grow the small trees. Scientists involved in field pennycress evaluations have explored the meal's potential as a natural soil fumigant. Last on the list is to use the meal as a feedstock for biomass power and heat. While that is often considered the lowest value application, the high energy costs experienced in 2008 may just move the value of the meal to produce bioenergy closer to its value as feed-leveling the playing field for new alternative oilseed crops.

Susanne Retka Schill is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 738-4922.
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