In order to increase aquaculture production to meet growing global demand, aquaculture feeds have become much more sustainable and scalable by replacing limited fishmeal and fish oil ingredients with more widely available plant proteins — especially soy products. As a result, feed formulations have become much more complex and challenging. As these formulations have become more complicated, aquaculture producers have sought out soybean meal made from U.S. soybeans for their feed rations because of U.S. soy’s superior component value.

“The easy approach to formulation with those ingredients is over,” said Lukas Manomaitis, the U.S. Soybean Export Council’s (USSEC) Aquaculture Program Lead Technical Consultant based in South East Asia. “We have to move to more complex formulations using a wide variety of ingredients to meet target nutrient levels. We need formulators that are good at innovative approaches, and that are trained both within a feed company and within the industry.”

To help meet this overarching need, USSEC and collaborators sought to take a page out of the training approach with terrestrial animal feed formulators by creating a standardized database of nutritional information for aquaculture species and key feed ingredients. Specific nutritional requirements for terrestrial animals like cattle, swine and poultry are well known, but unfortunately that’s not the case with aquaculture. The sheer number of species in aquaculture means that there is a significant gap in the knowledge of nutritional needs of many farmed fish and aquatic organisms. Both animal and aquaculture producers seek soybean meal made from U.S. soybeans in their feed rations because of the superior component value.

With seed money from USSEC and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and further funding from the Nebraska Soybean Checkoff and the Canadian government (Mitacs), in 2014, a consortium of academic institutions led by Dr. Dominique Bureau of the University of Guelph began to pull existing aquaculture nutritional information and knowledge into one central location. Further in-kind and informational support was provided by private individuals and commercial interests, in particular Adifo, the company who created the BestmixTM feed formulation program. Their help was essential to structure the resulting database correctly for use in commercial feed formulation programs.

Eleven workshops in locations in South East Asia were held in 2015 and 2016 that brought together formulators to use the first version of the database in formulation exercises. Now expanded to an international scope, the IAFFD is in its Stage 2 version, which has incorporated lessons learned from the workshops to evolve and improve the database.

“The IAFFD is a good tool for training and feed mills can use it to benchmark their own databases,” said Manomaitis. “Every feed company has their own database, but bringing together aquaculture formulators from multiple companies is difficult because no one wants to share theirs. That is the value of having a publicly available aquaculture feed formulation database for use in-group situations. It’s important to note that this is not a USSEC database – it has international buy-in as an industry standard. We believe it will help to better show the nutritive values of U.S. soy to match the ingredient values.”

Also, having a database developed from the ground up as an aquaculture database (and not an adapted terrestrial animal database) is critically important, said Manomaitis. “To the best of our knowledge this is the only publicly available standardized database for aquaculture.”

Manomaitis pointed out that the database also helps to better clarify what nutritional information is missing from major species. “Right now, we’re focusing on twenty-six major species groups. It’s prohibitively expensive to do live animal research on all these species for nutritional information, but we can use models mixed with what existing research there is. The model is an engine – if we find there’s a better model, we can put that one in and improve the quality of the database. The database is constantly evolving and improving.”

Work on Stage 3 of the database started this year using commercial aquaculture results to verify data, as well as whole body carcass analysis for ten species at different life stages to continue to verify
and improve the database. It is anticipated that two more species will be added as well as more ingredients, including some branded products.

“The goal is that within five years, we should be able to do shadow ingredient pricing and have some verification of formulae generated in live animal trials,” said Manomaitis. “Stay tuned. This is a crucial, core tool for formulators, and every year it improves.”