Grant helps UNE become world leader in ‘net energy’ research

Published 03 March 2011

chookA grant of more than $876,000 from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) is helping the University of New England to become the world’s largest centre for the study of “net energy” in animal nutrition.

The RIRDC grant is augmented by a grant from the NSW Government’s Science Leveraging Fund, which is being used for the construction at UNE of sophisticated experimental equipment for the “net energy” project.

This equipment – 24 closed-circuit calorimetric chambers – will enable researchers to measure and compare the net utilisation of dietary energy for growth, reproduction, and the maintenance of life functions in meat chickens. The project is titled “Implementation of a net energy system for the Australian chicken meat industry”.

UNE’s Professor Mingan Choct, the initiator of the project, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Poultry Cooperative Research Centre (Poultry CRC), and both UNE and the Poultry CRC are partners in the project, along with the animal nutrition company Feedworks Pty Ltd. The contributions of the three partners over the course of the four-year project will bring the total budget to $1.46 million.

UNE’s own Science Engineering Workshop is building the 24 calorimetric chambers that – installed in an environment-controlled room – will be used to house chickens being fed a wide range of experimental diets. The chambers will enable the precise measurement of all energy input and output, including the production of heat during the digestion, absorption, and metabolism of nutrients.

Professor Jean Noblet, the director of nutrition and metabolism research within INRA, France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research, is a member of the project team. Professor Noblet, who is an international authority on net energy, will pay regular visits to UNE as part of his collaborative role, with his first visit scheduled for May this year.

The project will involve commercial-scale validation trials, and trials with and without commonly used feed additives such as enzymes. Finally, if the commercial trials are successful, an Australia-wide implementation of the net energy system will begin in consultation with the industry.

“Studies of this kind have been talked about for the past 70 years, but the calorimeters required for the work are very expensive to set up and run,” Professor Choct said. “Now, however, with the cost of animal production – and hence food production – rising all the time, there is increasing pressure to produce ‘more from less’ sustainably. So, for the first time, the study of net energy has become an economic proposition.”

“Saving 10 grams of feed per kilogram of live weight means an annual saving of $4 million for the Australian chicken meat industry,” he explained. “If a net energy system can be successfully implemented, savings at least three times bigger that this are expected.”

Professor Choct emphasised, however, that “this is a very hard nut to crack”. “If it was easy, someone would have cracked it years ago,” he said. “It’s scientifically challenging, and demanding in terms of resources. But there’s tremendous momentum in the industry now to produce something new.”

Clicking on the image displayed at the top of this page reveals a photograph of Professor Mingan Choct.