The basics of economics talk about supply and demand of products and services. The basics of scientific research often talk about the purity and impartiality of the science incorporated to get theories and laws.

One would not expect these “church and state” types of ideas to cross paths often, particularly in the realm of animal nutrition. Yet these two concepts drive the daily strategies of a veteran workforce of animal nutritionists, food scientists, microbiologists and other researchers at Cargill Animal Nutrition’s Innovation Campus in Elk River, Minn.

In 2008, the Innovation Campus celebrates 50 years in its current location studying the science of feed formulations and the animals that eventually produce pork, poultry, beef and dairy products all over the world.

A simple theory on its face, Cargill’s scientists use supply-and-demand thinking to drive the company’s feed formulations and research. Complexity comes into play when the disciplined science is put into practice: These scientists may as well be called “nutrient specialists,” as they drill down on a case-by-case basis to develop nutrient formulas that best serve each species’ needs.

“What we’ve learned is, you can’t rely on ingredients or book values,” says Mike Craig, Ph.D., technology director, Cargill Animal Nutrition. “You have to understand what nutrients each ingredient load has, and develop the nutrient supply of that load. Then each animal has a nutrient demand or requirement, and we match those up.”

It has been a change in thinking, Craig says, that has taken time in the industry and been watched carefully by Cargill Animal Nutrition.

“Historically, the industry has looked at feed as ingredients,” he explains. “So if you had x percent of soybean meal, y percent of corn, you could get a certain level of performance. Well, what’s important to the animal are the nutrients, such as the amino acids.”

Using this formulaic approach as its feed- formulation and animal-nutrition strategy, Cargill has been able to add value for its customers, according to Dave Cieslak, vice president of Cargill Animal Nutrition.

“Everyone would look at [an ingredient] and call it the same name, but it could vary in economic value by 10 percent or more,” he says. “That makes a huge difference in whether you’re going to have success in feeding an animal and delivering what the customer wants rather than have a failure.”

Cargill believes its focus on the nutrients in an ingredient, rather than on the ingredient itself, gives it an edge in the marketplace and positions the company as a worldwide force in the realm of animal nutrition.

“Over the last 15 years especially, we’ve created a fairly complex system to understand what nutrients would be supplied and what the animals’ requirements are, and that has been very key for us, especially globally,” Craig adds.

Drilling into demands

Development of a complex system is one thing, but where Cargill succeeds, Cieslak says, is through its understanding of customer needs.

“We have customers to our animal nutrition business: people caring for animals, feeding animals and building their livelihoods around the success they have in growing and raising animals,” he explains. “But we also have their customers — the people they market those animals to — and ultimately in the case of livestock production, we have the people who consume those animals to consider.”

Cargill Animal Nutrition also works with other Cargill businesses to develop solutions that work for their segments, always with an eye on the endgame.

“The end goal is to get the food product, working through animals,” Craig says. “The challenge of economics today is that you have to do that very cost-effectively and you have to be efficient in what you’re doing.”

He adds that 50 years ago when the Research Farm moved to Elk River, the typical main emphasis for producers was getting the best average daily gain or the best feed efficiency for the livestock. Today, however, Cargill Animal Nutrition is more connected to the end user and is thus concerned more with things such as the composition of milk, for example.

“Do you want to enhance certain fatty acids, or increase protein or fat content to improve the cheese yield or flavor?” Craig adds. “So it’s more than just average date of gain or yield, it’s what the end product looks like. That’s more and more what we’re doing here, in addition to average daily gain and feed efficiency, especially today with the economy like it is.”

Cieslak concurs that this mentality is a big part of the evolution of the Animal Nutrition Innovation Campus.

“Understanding how to feed that animal, all the consequences of feeding it in the ways we can measure more precisely today, in a way that consumers are demanding — that we manage the attributes of the food product that comes from that animal — all of that has to factor into what we’re doing here,” he says.

Those factors go beyond the science departments within Cargill Animal Nutrition. According to Craig, the salesforce is disciplined in the importance of the many facets of animal feed and nutrition through training in the field and at the Connection Center, a training and administration building opened on the campus last summer. In fact, during The National Provisioner’s visit to the facility, the center was hosting nearly a dozen salespeople from the company’s dairy business in China for a weeklong training seminar on new formulations, products and tactics.

“We have a formulation system we call ‘MAX™,’ in which you get maximum response from the animal,” Craig says. “Our field people will take that MAX formulation to the producer, they’ll bring in the nutrient supply and requirements, they’ll look at the animals’ genetics, they’ll look at what the producer wants the end product to look like, and what ingredients they have on the facility, and then we bring in what’s needed to get the desired animal response.”

Pleasing the global palate

One of the largest challenges Cargill Animal Nutrition faces in such a large company is the customization of its solutions to a global marketplace. In other words, what consumers demand from their end product dictates the animal response that growers want to achieve, which then dictates to Cargill’s nutrient specialists what to feed the animal.

“We work in markets around the world, and consumers in different markets have very different desires in terms of the food that they’re going to see on their plates. One example is pork fat quality,” Cieslak says. He adds that Cargill must be aware in its strategies that there are differences in consumer desires for the color and softness of the fat in a cut of pork. Those qualities, he says, can be altered by working with the feed formulation.

“We’ve worked with Cargill Meat Solutions in the past to look at some feeding programs that were tailored toward creating the right pork fat characteristics,” Cieslak says. “There are markets where creating [a white, hard pork] fat will create a cut of pork that will not be purchased by the consumer, because they’re looking for fat that is softer and maybe even has a little yellow color to it.”

One of the advantages of Cargill’s nutrient focus and deep understanding of each species’ metabolic needs is the fact that it has a base upon which to extend its research scope. Take, for example, when the Innovation Campus opened its Aquaculture Innovation Unit in 2006. Although fish, shrimp and other aquatic creatures may not appear the same as poultry, swine and cattle, Cargill was able to take the basics of nature and apply its previous research in those three species to lay the foundation for the aquaculture research.

“The data from pork and poultry feed formulation, amino acids and available phosphorus assisted in the aquaculture startup, which focuses on two model species — tilapia and hybrid striped bass — for the fish research,” explains Mark Newcomb, Ph.D., technology manager of consumer nutrition for Cargill Animal Nutrition. “The way our research strategy is set up, we can translate the nutrients needed by one species, such as pork, into a mathematical model off which to base future research.”

Cieslak believes Cargill’s ability to leverage that model has given the company a strong position of leadership in the industry thus far.

“In some of these areas, there’s more progressive understanding of protein metabolism of animals and how amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are utilized to promote healthy growth and the right kind of composition of products for human consumption,” he explains. “We’ve taken a very basic and disciplined scientific approach to describing the way animal metabolism works.

“Then we work to leverage the knowledge we get, say, from poultry and pork nutrition, into dairy and beef nutrition, and it’s led to some really important advances for us in terms of how to feed ruminant animals in particular, and more recently horses, to get the right kind of healthy growth.”

At a Glance

Facility: Cargill Animal Nutrition Innovation Campus
Location: Elk River, Minn.
Size: More than 800 acres, 5 innovation units, approx. 12 buildings
No. of employees: Approx. 100
Main HQ: Cargill Animal Nutrition, Minnetonka, Minn.

Innovation Campus Timeline

1958: Cargill Research Farm (original name) moves to Elk River, Minn.
1985: Dairy Innovation Unit added.
1994: Extensive upgrades and expansion of laboratory capabilities.
1996: Swine Research Facilities upgraded to Swine Innovation Unit.
2000: Poultry Innovation Unit added.
2006: Aquaculture Innovation Unit added.
2007: Connection Center opens for training and tours, welcoming approx. 1,700 visitors in first year.

In the works

The key to success in any of the food-processing industries is being able to respond to the ever-changing demands of the consumer. In the animal nutrition world, it is no different. Cargill Animal Nutrition’s Innovation Campus in Elk River, Minn., has been a successful venture because of its ability to keep on top of the trends and not fear experimenting with ideas off the beaten path when necessary. According to Mike Craig, Ph.D., technology director, Cargill Animal Nutrition, and Dave Cieslak, vice president of Cargill Animal Nutrition, here are some of the projects Cargill’s Animal Nutrition Innovation Campus was working through as of August 2008:

• Cargill Animal Nutrition was working toward total HACCP(Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) certification of all its facilities around the globe, even though it is not regulated to meet such standards. Cieslak says it’s part of Cargill’s approach to ensuring a safe food supply.

• Researchers on the campus were looking for other ingredient opportunities to ease the reliance upon corn and soy in the feed industry, given the current skyrocketing costs of these particular ingredients. Craig explains that the company is drilling down to solve the nutrient puzzle supplied by those ingredients and look for real, cost-effective opportunities that may challenge the standards and paradigms of feed in relation to corn and soy.

• Scientists are also using the nutrient-focused approach to proactively discover any negative elements in the ingredients they receive, that producers would not want to put in an animal, using near-infrared technology to map out and compare ingredient loads.

• The Innovation Campus has a Gut Health Initiative that is studying the internal workings of the animals’ digestive systems, in relation to both the metabolic process and the microbial populations in different locations, in the hopes that the results will help limit pathogen populations that could become a contamination issue during processing.

• Animal Nutrition is working with many other parts of Cargill to develop what they’re currently calling the Center for Nutritional Sciences, which is part of a “Feed for Food” emphasis that will bring the division closer to the food industry. Craig explains that the Center would use animals as a preclinical model before a new food product is given to humans — if there are important attributes for human nutrition in this new product, the Center could evaluate the product using the animal-based model and have a science-backed foundation upon which to move forward. Cieslak says that as Cargill learns more and more about how animal nutrition works, it follows that many of the theories and strategies can be applied to human nutrition throughout the rest of Cargill.