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Managing the Rising Price of Agricultural Commodities

Commodities prices are rising around the world, and many producers are trying to manage by using alternative crops or cutting quality standards. But does it put animals—and, ultimately, operations—at risk? Here’s what you need to know.

Augusto Heck

In Brief

• When the prices of agricultural commodities rise, some producers lower quality standards to save costs or buy alternative ingredients.
• Lower quality and alternative grains can have consequences in animals. The costs of managing those consequences could negate the savings achieved by buying cheaper grain.
• Understanding and mitigating risks, including likelihood of mycotoxin contamination, is key to profitability.

Photo: Timothy Jenkins

Photo: Timothy Jenkins

The price of corn and soybeans, two of the main commodities used in pig feed formulas, has been skyrocketing. Repercussions have been felt worldwide, with increases in production costs resulting in the narrowing of profit margins or, sometimes, producers operating at a loss.

Corn, for example, is a basic ingredient in swine diets. The average international price is around USD 160 per ton, and projected to rise in USD 5 increments to an incredible USD 180 per ton in 2025.

To mitigate this economic impact, many production systems have adopted risky strategies, namely relaxing their quality standards for the purchase of corn, compromising on standards such as moisture levels, percentage of damaged grains, oil content and mycotoxin contamination. When purchasing soy, the protein, moisture and crude fiber content--as well as the urea activity and presence and levels of mycotoxins—have been made more “flexible”.

Average Worldwide Price for Maize, Source: Statista
Average Worldwide Price for Maize
Source: Statista

Consequences of using lower quality commodities

The consequences resulting from this “flexibility” of quality standards include:

  • the need for nutritional correction with aggregation of extra costs sometimes equal to or greater than the resource savings generated in the purchase of lower quality the grain;
  • higher presence of antinutritional factors that negatively impact zootechnical indicators;
  • greater prevalence and levels of mycotoxins and with a strong possibility of co-contamination, generating the need to invest in products to mitigate the impact or, if they are not adopted, face mycotoxicosis in animals. Because of the compounding effects of co-contamination with multiple mycotoxins, the impact of mycotoxicosis could be orders of magnitude greater than the initial contamination levels.

The moisture content of corn, when high and occurring along with hot temperatures, creates ideal conditions for the proliferation of fungi and, potentially, the production of mycotoxins. Damaged grains are more vulnerable to these fungi because they have lost their protective structures. The oil content, associated with the energy level that the corn must contain, may be significantly reduced in poor quality grains, generating the need for nutritional corrections. And when mycotoxins are present at certain levels, their effects range from silent and delayed damage to the health and performance of your animals to large losses resulting from severe disease called mycotoxicosis.

Soy primarily contributes to the protein fraction in swine diets. When we have low quality soy, the protein content tends to be lower, requiring nutritional corrections. The high moisture content, together with high temperatures, can also encourage fungal growth and the production of mycotoxins. If the urea activity is high, it means that the thermal processes of inactivation of antinutritional factors present in the soybeans were not well executed and could have a negative impact on pigs’ performance. As with corn, soy can be a source of mycotoxins and so must be tested.

When mycotoxins are present at certain levels, their effects range from silent and delayed damage to the health and performance of your animals to large losses from mycotoxicosis.

The proportion of systems that have incurred these risks is quite high, given the scarcity of supply and the steady, if not increased, demand, as well as increased opportunities for international trade arising from the sanitary crises in Asia and Europe, which had a negative impact on local pork production. The increase in pork production for export ends up aggravating the mismatch between supply and demand for commodities.

In addition, reducing minimum quality standards, some producers look for alternative ingredients to partially replace corn and soybeans. The ingredients vary depending on the place and times season. While there is information available on how to properly formulate feed from a nutritional point of view, there is a lack of information about the types of levels of mycotoxins they contain because they are not routinely monitored. The great vulnerability is the poverty of information regarding the types and levels of mycotoxins present in them, but now they need to be included in mycotoxin risk management programs.

In the BIOMIN Mycotoxin Survey, the longest running and most comprehensive data set on mycotoxin occurrence, samples from nearly all continents contained mycotoxins produced by fungi of the fusarium genus in quantities indicating a ‘high risk’ status. This apparent higher risk of mycotoxins may be partially justified by this pressure exerted by their price, but also by a growing concern with monitoring the quality of raw materials, generating more diagnostic information for decision-making. In this context fumonisin (FUM), deoxynivalenol (DON) and zearalenone (ZEN) are the mycotoxins most present in positivity and levels founded in most situations, comparing the same period with the previous year, we had an increase in risk levels.

Source: BIOMIN Mycotoxin Survey, January-June 2021
Source: BIOMIN Mycotoxin Survey, January-June 2021

Various Mycotoxins and their Effects

Fumonisins can cause pulmonary edema, nephrotoxicity and hepatotoxicity. What’s more deleterious, and often the cause-and-effect relationship is not perceived, is its impact on the exacerbation of bacterial respiratory and enteric diseases, as well as immunization failures due to its immunosuppressive effect. These situations occur in the presence of low but constant levels of fumonisins. This is precisely what we are currently facing.

Trichothecenes, which is a group of mycotoxins that includes deoxynivalenol or vomitoxin, are characterized by causing digestive disorders (e.g., vomiting, diarrhea, refusal to eat), reduced weight gain, hemorrhages (e.g., stomach, heart, intestine, lung, bladder, kidney), edema, oral injuries, dermatitis, blood diseases, infertility, bone marrow degeneration, slow growth, immune suppression. Trichothecenes disrupt the barrier function of the intestine, allowing substances and disease agents to enter the animal's body, causing disease and loss of performance. Bacteria that causes enteric conditions have their pathogenicity increased in the presence of trichothecenes.

Zearalenone is a mycotoxin that has its chemical structure very similar to estrogen, which is the female sex hormone. Its presence may cause abortions, return to estrus, pseudopregnancy, prolonged estrus, anoestrus, vulval edema, prolapse of the vagina, uterus enlargement, atrophy of ovaries, testicular atrophy, decreased sexual interest in boars, gynecomastia in males and young animals, worsening sperm quality, subfertility and infertility. This is the mycotoxin that worries all production systems that have breeding stock due to the negative impact that it can cause even in short-term situations.

The BIOMIN Mycotoxin Survey found that 65% of samples have co-contamination, that is, the presence of two or more mycotoxins. This is particularly critical in the following combinations: FUM + DON and DON + ZEN. These combinations are said to be synergistic, that is, one mycotoxin amplifies the impact of the other. The presence of DON increases the absorption of FUM and ZEN, that is, the levels considered safe for all of them is lowered when there is co-occurrence.

Starting from the premise that the possibility of the occurrence of mycotoxins and the levels found in the pig feed ingredients are high and the swine is the species most susceptible to damage from them, it is essential to test for mycotoxins, perform a cost-benefit analysis of mycotoxin risk management and establish or reinforce mitigating actions.

Due to the biochemical nature of these three mycotoxins that we highlight as the most relevant, biotransformation is the mechanism of choice for a product to counteract mycotoxins. Other mechanisms are less effective, and efficacy is imperative at a time of high challenge.

BIOMIN Solutions

  • The Mycofix® range products the appropriate components to convert FUM, DON and ZEN into harmless metabolites in a selective and irreversible way. The enzyme FUMzyme® hydrolyzes fumonisins. The bacteria Biomin® BBSH® 797 produces an epoxidase enzyme that inactivates trichothecenes, the group of mycotoxins that includes DON, and last but not least, the recently launched enzyme ZENzyme® acts on zearalenone protecting the breeding stock.

  • These components are the only ones approved for the reduction of food contamination with mycotoxins in the European economic community. Within the EU, only registered components can make statements about the deactivation of mycotoxins, and the EU seal indicates the effectiveness of these tools.