By infusing chicken feed with Vitamin K1, researchers from the University of Sydney together with industry partner, Agricure are making chickens healthier, more productive and able to lay nutrient-rich eggs.
Agricure, a stock feed premix and supplement manufacturing company in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, has been working with the University since 1990. Directors, Ray Biffin and Hubert Regtop were concerned about the use of menadione, a synthetic Vitamin K supplement known as K3, which is toxic to humans but used in the feed for chickens, pigs and horses, as well as pet foods.
"Vitamin K3, we have shown, substantially decreases chicken bone density, and creates both animal welfare and commercial productivity issues", says Mr Regtop, Research Director at Agricure.
To tackle the problem, Agricure is working with researchers in the University's School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering to develop chicken feed and other animal feeds fortified with natural Vitamin K1. Vitamin K1 phylloquinone occurs naturally in high concentrations in green vegetables, algae and grasses but is unstable when subjected to UV light.
In high intensive poultry farming there is little natural K1 intake, particularly in battery chickens which are not able to range freely eating grass and insects. Similarly, horses fed a high-energy starch diet rather than allowed to quietly graze in paddocks, have been found to suffer bone density issues as they grow.
Andrea Talbot, a PhD student in the School's ARC Food Processing Training Centre (ARCFPTC), has shown that replacing the synthetic menadione with natural Vitamin K1 makes chickens healthier and more profitable by increasing bone density, overall lifetime and egg-laying productivity. The research has enabled Agricure to secure the international patent for the stable form of Vitamin K which can be added to feed.
"We believe that this is a simple first step toward getting K1 back into the food chain," says Andrea, who is working for Agricure while completing her doctorate.
"Being in partnership with the ARC Food Processing Group, and the University of Sydney generally, provides Agricure with international exposure and lends academic rigor to its own research and development. The partnership has allowed Agricure to access equipment and expertise that we may lack here at the factory."
Research team member, Tom Tarento is also developing low-cost Vitamin K1 products from microalgae and cyanobacteria – the ancient ancestors of land plants. Not only will these products be super-rich in Vitamin K1, they will contain a host of other beneficial nutrients and bioactive compounds for both human and animal health.
From a consumer perspective, eggs and chickens enriched with K1 will be beneficial to increase our Vitamin K intake, being more readily absorbed and stable compared to other dietary sources. Vitamin K is a fat-soluble Vitamin that is best known for the important role it plays in blood clotting.
However, Vitamin K is also absolutely essential to building strong bones, preventing heart disease, and crucial parts of other bodily processes. While we know less about the role of Vitamin K in human bone health than calcium and Vitamin D, research confirms that a Vitamin K deficiency can lead to weaker bones and an increased risk of fractures.
More than 4.74 million Australians over the age of 50 have osteoporosis or poor bone health. By 2022 it's predicted that there will be one fracture every 2.9 minutes. Over the next 10 years, the total cost of osteoporosis and associated fractures is estimated to be $33.6 billion.1
In addition to answering Agricure's brief for improving animal welfare and productivity, the Chemical and Biomolecular engineering research team is also in the process of developing low-cost Vitamin K-added products for human consumption.