The Challenge of Winter Game Diets

The Challenge of Winter Game Diets

Our national sales and marketing manager, Richard Leach, looks at why the spotlight is on diets like never before and why the feed sector needs formulators, not fortune tellers… 

More often than not, game feed rations are required to be of higher specification than is simply just ‘necessary’, otherwise there is a risk that two out of every five years will see fewer, poorer quality birds going to the guns.

Over the past decade, a third of our summers have experienced lengthy heatwaves – a trend highly likely to continue. Game feed, particularly for young birds, has to cater for this eventuality every year – and we are, after all, formulators, not fortune tellers or weather forecasters. Much like in humans, high temperatures mean feed intake can be significantly reduced – during really hot spells like in 2018 by as much as 10% – so more concentrated diets are required if proper health status is to be maintained. Similarly, cold weather also demands high specification rations because birds run the risk of illness and losing body condition.

A failure to uphold high nutritional standards will see a genuine rise in welfare issues – and can jeopardise achievements in other, important areas such as the reduction in antibiotic intake – healthy birds are less likely to fall ill. Diets fed in the first two weeks influence skeletal development, the risk of feather pecking, and plumage quality.

It is important that the diet demonstrates it can supply the full nutrient value declared on the label. Normally, at this early phase, it would be expected for 50% plus of the ration to comprise primary ingredients such as wheat and soya. An over reliance on feed by-products can give the impression that protein levels are higher than is the case; because less of the nutrient is available to the bird on intake.

But why raise the issue now? It is not that gamekeepers have suddenly taken their eye off the ball, or that compounders have moved towards lowered specifications (the standard of game feed in the UK is generally high); it is simply that the issue is more pertinent today than ever, and a timely reminder about the perils of getting it wrong is no bad thing.

I predict that climate change, combined with an onset of new environmentally orientated policies, will place game nutrition at the top of the agenda like never before. Welfare and mortality rates are set to become indicators of good governance in a sector determined to maintain self-regulation. The integrity of diets will be fundamental to this, and whatever pressures for cost cutting, inclinations towards game feed becoming a commodity must be resisted!

Perhaps more than in any other field, there is a case for game feed to be an ‘added value’ product. Gamekeepers, unlike their commercial counterparts in poultry production, have limited control over the birds’ environment in the first six to seven weeks, and almost no control thereafter when they are released from their pens. This gives increased exposure to the elements, so an equal focus on nutrition, in proportion with the environment and stage of development is one of the best sureties against illness and lagging birds.

Apart from ensuring the presence of prerequisite vitamins and minerals – calcium, phosphorus and vitamins D and E – formulators who are serious about their work should have good supply channels and access to a wide range of feed ingredients – dependence on just a narrow band of materials will undermine the validity of growing stock.

When consumption is low, feed must be designed to maximise nutritional intake to permit the natural development of the bird. Check your feed supplier has a policy of buying raw materials based on nutrient spec., to include bushel weight and dry matter. Low energy feeds mean high intakes, resulting in the birds eating more, and higher costs overall.

Purchasers must look beyond the headline price and consider the benefit to the birds to be derived from the ration. Birds that have fallen behind are a financial drain and seldom prevail through adverse conditions.

The challenge is every bit as great as high end commercial poultry production where feeds must promote gut health by helping reduce bacterial contamination; protein sources must have desired levels of digestible amino acids, which can be readily absorbed for development.

The benefits of all this are healthy birds, high welfare and less mortality. Good for commercial reality – and the rigours of outside scrutiny that is already intensifying.