Back Palm Kernel Extract - friend or foe?

Date: 13 April 2017

In little over a decade palm kernel extract (PKE) grew from being a little known by-product, to one of the most commonly used supplements on NZ dairy farms.  The expansion and intensification and of dairying contributed to increase in sales but, in my opinion, it was the easy accessibility of a relatively low-priced supplement that fuelled growth the most.

Growing on-farm crops like maize is cheaper than buying in palm kernel, but it also requires some forward planning. Palm kernel was an easy fix for farmers who fell into feed holes and didn’t have some form of supplementary feed (e.g a stack of maize) on farm. In my opinion the easy accessibility of PKE  helped create sloppy pasture management practices.

Now Fonterra is trying to persuade farmers to use less palm kernel. They have developed a test that measures the Fat Evaluation Index (FEI).  They say “A recently completed pilot study with 200 farmers around the country has confirmed the test is accurate and fit for purpose. The study’s findings support our original voluntary guideline of 3 kg per cow, per day is a good rule of thumb across the lactation season”. From April this year farmers will receive FEI results on their tanker docket and Fonterra will provide support to farmers with test results that indicate PKE use in excess of the guideline.

Miles Hurrell, group director cooperative affairs, says   “In general, we know that in international markets we get a premium for our milk because of our pasture-based system. We see reduced PKE use as a positive step toward protecting that grass-fed reputation and our product integrity.”

Landcorp, the country's largest farmer, has announced it will transition to alternative feed supplements by June 2017. Chief executive Steven Carden says "Landcorp wants our partners and customers to know they can trust that we farm sustainably and care for the environment. We need to anticipate shifting consumer expectations on how their food is produced and change how we farm accordingly."

As palm kernel usage on farm falls, improved pasture yields coupled with a stack of maize silage, can help fill the feed deficits. Maize (a member of the grass family), harvested as silage is a great option because:

  1. It can be fed in high amounts. PKE will no longer be the solution for large and unpredicted feed deficits. In contrast maize silage can safely be fed at high rates in periods of large pasture deficits.
  2. It is locally grown. It is free from the biosecurity risk associated with imported feeds.
  3. It can be stored for long periods of time without a deterioration in quality. I’ve seen farmers feeding excellent quality maize silage that is 3 or more seasons old. The key is to ensure it is well compacted, covered with a high quality cover, and the edges are sealed.
  4. It is an excellent cow conditioner. DairyNZ research has shown there is no significant difference in the amount of palm kernel or maize silage required to put on cow condition score (DairyNZ Body Condition Scoring p.49).
  5. It drives milk production. A number of the country’s leading dairy farmers are producing over 500kgMS/cow/year on pasture and maize silage.
  6. It is cost-effective. Most NZ dairy farmers can grow maize silage crops yielding 18-26 tDM/ha for 11-16c/kgDM in the stack.
  7. It is environmentally sustainable. Many regional councils are looking to ban winter grazed forage crops because they result in high nitrogen and phosphorus losses. Maize silage fed on a feed pad is one of the key ways farmers can reduce nutrient losses.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of maize is the fact that feeding rates can be altered to keep pasture residuals at optimal levels. Maize plus grass represents a winning system that is profitable and also sustainable. 


Ian Williams

Forage and Farm Systems Specialist