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Fish Meal in Pastured Poultry Feed

Posted by Jim McLaughlin on

The following has been copied from "The Organic Broadcaster" and The Ferrell Company Newsletter

Organic Broadcaster

Research shows fishmeal improves poultry performance

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

Recently completed research by the Fertrell Company of Bainbridge, Penn., indicates that broiler chickens fed a ration including fishmeal grow larger and have better feed conversion than those without the nutritional supplement.

A highly concentrated protein, fishmeal helps balance essential amino acids in poultry feed, particularly methionine and lysine. It is highly digestible and palatable to poultry, and averages 58 to 72 percent protein, and 1280 to 1550 Kcal/lb of energy.

Protein needed for animal growth is actually a need for a diversity of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. While all amino acids are important, some cannot be produced by animals and so must come through the diet. These are “essential amino acids,” and methionine is one for poultry.

Methionine is required for several functions in poultry, responsible for a variety of metabolic reactions and essential for cell development. It is tied to weight gain and egg production.

There are limited sources of methionine for poultry. Synthetic methionine is added to non-organic poultry diets, but is restricted in organic production. This has been a topic of discussion at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), with pressure to remove the allowance for limited use of synthetic methionine in poultry diets. Alternative sources such as algae, ground beetles and high-methionine corn have been explored, but come up short.

Fishmeal is an important natural source of methionine in organic poultry diets. The Fertrell research was done to quantify the value of fishmeal in broiler production, and proves that there are animal health and economic benefits to including the supplement in organic poultry diets.

Fishmeal is made from small sea fish, generally herring, menhaden, anchovies, or from farm-raised catfish. Quality is an issue in fishmeal, particularly for those in organic production. A common preservative used in some fishmeal is not allowed under organic rules, and catfish particularly can carry high levels of contaminants such as heavy metals or antibiotics. Fishmeal used in organic diets must be carefully sourced.

While a great source of protein for poultry, inclusion of fishmeal in rations should be kept at below 5 percent to assure a fishy flavor is not transferred to meat or eggs.

In the Fertrell research, two groups of approximately 50 Cornish cross broilers were raised until 43 days old. Group A was fed a diet containing fishmeal and Group B fed a diet without fishmeal. Each diet also contained corn, roasted soybeans, alfalfa meal, oats, aragonite (calcium), and Poultry Nutribalancer (a vitamin and mineral premix made by Fertrell). Both groups were fed a 21 percent chick starter for the first 3 weeks then 18 percent broiler grower feed until processing. The birds were raised on pasture in moveable pens.


Research Summary

By Casey Rogers, Chet Wagner and Walker Fackler, Fertrell

Of the birds processed, the fish group (Group A) had 25 males and 24 females and the non-fish group (Group B) 21 males and 30 females. Group A averaged 11.14 lb. of feed per bird and Group B averaged 10.22 lb. of feed per bird in 43 days. The cost of feed with fish for Group A was $27.48 per 50 lb. bag ($ 0.5496/lb) while the cost for the no fish feed for Group B was $26.45 per 50 lb. bag ($0.529/lb).

Average live weights were 6.40 lb. for Group A and 4.50 lb. for Group B. Average carcass weights for Group A were 4.27 lb. and 3.33 lb. for Group B. The difference between live weight and carcass weights was 2.13 lb. for Group A and 1.18 lb. for Group B. While there were more females than males in Group B, the researchers feel the difference was not significant enough to alter the comparisons.

The calculated feed conversion ratios (the amount of feed consumed to gain 1 lb. of body weight) for Group A were 1.74 live weight and 2.61 carcass weight. Group B feed conversion ratios were 2.33 live weight and 3.16 carcass weights. It is more important to look at the FCR for carcass weights than live weights, as carcass weight is what producers are paid for.

Other production costs included the cost of the chick ($1.15/chick), the cost of bedding and misc. equipment ($0.50/bird), and labor (30 minutes/day x $12 an hour ÷ 100 birds). The total was roughly $2.58 per bird. Processing costs totaled approximately $3 per bird. It is assumed that these birds could sell for $4 a pound.

Further Discussion

Some producers are not in favor of using fishmeal in poultry diets. Arguments include the difficulty of sourcing quality product, the cost, and desires to raise “vegetarian” chickens.

Fishmeal commonly contains the preservative Ethoxyquin. This preservative is not allowed in organic production and research has linked it to cancer in humans among other potential toxicities. (See

Fishmeal is available that does not contain Ethoxyquin, and instead uses a preservative approved for organic use. The product used in this study was from a sustainably sourced fishery and used an organic-compliant preservative.

There is also concern that the fish populations utilized in fishmeal production are under increasing pressure, as demand for feed fish for farm-raised fish increases and livestock producers turn to fishmeal as an alternative to feed supplements such as bone meal and blood meal.

Another argument against incorporating fish meal is its relative expense. As stated above, the cost of a 50 lb. bag with fishmeal was $27.48 versus $26.45 without fishmeal. This is a difference of 2 cents per pound, $1.03 per 50 lb. bag, or $41.20 per ton. The small difference in overall cost/ton of feed compared to the benefits seen by the incorporation of fishmeal should easily balance out.

‘Vegetarian’ Chickens

Some farmers have seen consumer demand for chickens raised with a vegetarian diet. However, chickens are not naturally vegetarians, as they eat bugs and other insects that they find for protein. While fish might not be their naturally selected form of animal protein, it is one that they will consume readily.

As mentioned previously, providing methionine and other essential amino acids from grain crops or other sources is challenging. Synthetic methionine is not encouraged under organic regulations. Those with demand for vegetarian chickens will for now have to turn to synthetic methionine instead of fishmeal, but this may not be an option for organic producers in the future.

Anecdotal Points

Along with keeping track of feed consumption, the researchers also kept a log of behavior and development of the birds. Group A (fish) started developing their adult feathers three days before Group B (no fish). While this may seem trivial, imagine how much relief three days’ worth of better body insulation could bring during a cold chill in spring. Birds would also be ready to move to pasture three days sooner, helping to relieve pressures from coccidiosis or heat stress in the brooder during the summer months.

The behavior of the birds in Group A (fish) was also very different from the behavior in Group B (no fish). Group A birds were significantly calmer throughout the trial and not nearly as flighty or skittish as Group B. The birds in Group A were easier to move forward on pasture in their pens while Group B birds always struggled during moving time.

Finally, during processing, the birds in Group B (no fish) needed an extra 30 seconds of scalding time before they could be plucked. The feathers did not come out nearly as easily for the birds in Group B as in Group A. While this may not affect your bottom line directly, it will impact your time if you are doing the processing. It is believed that the increase in amino acids made the feathers from Group A easier to pluck, though there is no proof of this other than what was experienced.


Adding fishmeal to a broiler diet while keeping other nutritional constraints the same, researchers found an increase both in carcass weights and in feed conversion ratios. This resulted in an increased net profit of $3.04 per bird for birds fed a ration with fishmeal over those that were not. In addition to extra profit and larger carcass weights, birds fed fishmeal seemed calmer and easier to handle in the field. At processing, the fishmeal-fed birds were also easier to pluck. Overall, it is concluded that feeding fishmeal to poultry will increase a farmer’s bottom line and is worth the endeavor.

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