Cooks Venture wants to make US poultry industry sustainable through feed

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Ekkasit919
© GettyImages/Ekkasit919

Related tags: Feed ingredient, Poultry, fiber

Changing how feed is grown and the kinds of rations used with poultry are aspects of Cooks Venture's push to move poultry production from “sustainable” to “regenerative” agriculture, says CEO.

The Arkansas-based facility was started by farmers and members of the food industry with an interest in developing a regenerative supply chain starting with the production of crops and feed.

Working with ‘sustainable’ production is not enough, because that only maintains current practices, it doesn’t improve production, said Matt Wadiak, CEO with Cooks Venture. However, there hasn’t been an “economy of scale”​ for regenerative systems working with livestock and food production in the US.

There has, however, been an expanding interest in production with a “higher welfare”​ standard for livestock and also for feed, he told FeedNavigator.  

“We started Cooks Venture because you can’t really have a curricular economy in the food sector unless you address the nation’s biggest food, which is chicken, and that was something we were never really able to tackle,”​ he said.

“Applying this idea of improving the quality of the feed into the monogastric animal makes the largest impact on American farms,” ​he said. “My goal is to get to a point where we’re not relying on USDA farm subsidies to put ethanol into the ground and instead harvest profitable crops for farmers.”

That process involves helping to develop better crop rotations, soil health and support the use of livestock with different genetics able to make use of “lower-density”​ feeds, he said. Adding, “That’s why I’m doing this is to create that macro impact and then apply that into other monogastric animals like hogs.”

Eventually, there is an intention to alter how some cattle are raised to rely more on use of pasture and less on the use of feedlots, he said. There also is an interest in helping develop an economic system for producers to help them be more profitable.

Facility background and economic elements

The company acquired an 800-acre farm in Arkansas to raise poultry and livestock using a regenerative system, according to company information.

Cooks Venture also is working with scientists to measure soil carbon, nutrition and other elements on the farm and with growers who generate feed ingredients to track metrics including soil health, biodiversity and pests.

The company is launching its initial poultry products in July.

Building a profitable agro-economic system involves establishing a “lean supply chain”​ and working directly with producers to improve the system used to produce monogastric animals, said Wadiak.

“Monogastric animals are the largest potential in terms of creating a better feed system,” ​he said. That understanding is why Cooks Venture works with poultry.  

The company uses non-GMO transitional feed ingredients that are grown in the US as a way to support producers during the transition to organic, he said. It works with the farms that supply its feed ingredients to check soil health and watch for year-to-year improvement with a selection of metrics.

“Creating really good contracts that are hedge-able with your growers directly as opposed to relying on commoditized contracts – I feel like is an advantage and you kind of know where your price is,” ​Wadiak said. “In a circular economy, you really want to be managing your customer’s pricing expectation because they know you’re a differentiator and that allows you to secure pricing in terms of your feed and understand your cost of goods going into a live animal.”

“That’s really key – if you’re importing organic feed from overseas you’re a victim of that economy,”​ he added.

Rejuvenation and feed production

In addition to changing how feed is generated for the organization’s poultry flocks, the group has changed the feed and bird, said Wadiak.

Cooks Venture raises a slower growing bird and uses a “lower density”​ single-stage feed, he said. “I don’t know of any other company of any scale in the US that has a single stage feed – everybody is [using] starter, grower, finisher – three phases of feed,”​ he added.

However, other poultry has been developed genetically to use a feed with higher levels of carbohydrates, he said. “It’s a high carb, protein-based diet that fattens the chickens perfectly,”​ he added.

“But [it] really isn’t great for crop rotations, isn’t really great for the land and isn’t really great for the animals,” ​Wadiak said. “They end up with poorer gut health, but they’re genetically designed that if they don’t get those nutrients, they’re so quick growing they’re hungry – so they need that three-phase feed.”

“We have a slower growing chicken that grows on a slightly different curve that puts on bone density first and gut health and immune system and strong legs and puts on the muscle in the latter part of its life but will still convert in terms of body conformation,”​ he added.

The change in growth pattern allows for the use of a different kind of feed, he said. In addition to being a single-stage feed, the company uses one that is higher in fiber.

“It allows us to include things within our feed – we can trial hemp in our feed, we can trial small grains in our feed, we can use a whole toasted soybean as opposed to extracted soy,” ​he said. “So, we have a lot of different options feed-wise – we can use less corn and more wheat and sunflower meal.”

Currently, the company is in the process of raising its first round of trial feed ingredients, testing with them will start in August and some results will be published said Wadiak. Adding, “This year we’ll be doing our year zero testing of our crops in August with our partner farms and our feed mill.”

In addition to testing the feed, the company is tracking the soil used to grow its feed ingredients, he said.

“We’re going to look at the organic matter in soil through less input substitution year-over-year,” he said. “We’ll publish that annually [along with] the trials of how we’re working with farms to integrate some of these more nutritionally dense – for the soil that is – crops into crop rotations to create a more profitable system for farmers on a low-density feed that’s more cost effective for a slow-growing chicken.”

While there may be questions about the use of additional land or water in the production system, the process also involves pulling more acres into a regenerative system intended to improve soil health and sequester carbon while curbing some energy use, he said. “You’re actually creating a system of sequestration and better economics on farm,”​ he added.

As the system develops, there is interest in developing an information platform that could be used to address or improve practices at other companies, Wadiak said.

“We’re not trying to turn around the Titanic, we’re trying to create an example,” ​he added.

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