Creating the best line of pond feeds available may seem like an unusual challenge, but it is our passion.
As a small team of people with varied specializations and decades of experience in aquaculture, we pooled our knowledge to create a line of feeds that help fish live longer, healthier, and more productive lives. Having inboxes and phones filled with smiling people holding big fish, ponds boiling as feed is thrown, and families out fishing together, tells us exactly why we love what we do.
Traditional feed companies have a tendency to create blanket feed formulations used for many different fish species. Because warm-water pond fish make up a relatively small marketplace as compared to aquaculture, many formulations available are simply modifications of aquacultured fish species diets. Although most fish will eat these diets, they likely do not have the optimal nutrient profile necessary to grow and sustain best health. Different fish at different life stages have different nutritional requirements and preferences. It is no different than a fisherman using different baits to target different fish.
Like any great recipe, our feeds start with carefully selected ingredients. Every ingredient in Optimal Fish Foods goes through a rigorous evaluation process before we include it into a feed formulation. While we are always on the lookout for innovative and new ingredients, we “go with what we know” and test firsthand any and all ingredients before their addition into Optimal feeds. Although we strongly believe in the future of fish meal replacements and have worked in this area for more than a decade in the commercial food fish marketplace, at this time, all Optimal formulations do contain high quality fish meal at various inclusion levels. In our view, fish meal replacements should not just be less expensive protein sources, but rather high-quality products that taste good to fish and fill a distinct nutritional requirement for them. We try to combine our knowledge and experience with innovation and ideas that we learn continuously from experienced pond owners and fish biologists. Working within the intersection of these areas is a present and future key to producing the best feeds for our market. Thus, the ingredients in Optimal Fish Foods are carefully screened, evaluated and selected to provide the best performance that we can pack into a small pellet.
After selecting our ingredients, we verify that they contain the appropriate essential nutritional components (protein and amino acids, lipids and fatty acids, carbohydrates, fiber and ash concentrations). Once we identify vendors who consistently provide the highest possible quality ingredients, we continue to source our ingredients from these specific vendors for their high quality and consistent products. We do not “shop around” for the best price for ingredients—EVER. To make the best feed, you must source the highest quality ingredients from known and reputable sources.
Traditionally, fish feeds are extruded using a large machine where ingredients are blended together, ground to a very fine powder and then mixed with water, steam and pressure under highly controlled conditions. Extrusion is a process with very wide applications. Most of us have eaten foods that were made in a very similar process to fish feeds. Common foods like cereals or puffed snacks were all made through an extruder. Extrusion uses a balance of heat, water, and shear to cook and shape a product. Because the feeds produced for fish are being used in water, the extrusion process for fish foods is more demanding than other extruded products such as snacks or cereals. Because fish do not all inhabit the same areas within a pond environment, it is important to create a pellet that will end up in a place where the fish would feed. Some fish feed at the bottom, some at the top, and some in the middle.
By controlling the moisture, heat, and shear within the extruder, we are able to control the buoyancy of the final pellet. To help illustrate this, if you were to break a Cheeto in half, you would notice there are a lot of little air pockets inside. During extrusion, these spaces were filled with water. When the pellet or Cheeto is dried, the water evaporates leaving an open space. By controlling the size and number of these open spaces, we can create a final pellet that varies in its density and so either floats, sinks, floats for a bit then sinks, or just sinks slowly. To make all of this work, carbohydrates are necessary since they act to create the internal “bubbles” and ensure that the pellet stays together and floats but do not necessarily contribute to fish nutrition A big part of our research is finding ingredients that, not only contribute nutritionally, but also create a quality pellet. When we claim to “minimize fillers” this is the tradeoff that we are referring to.
Human and companion animal foods undergo extensive palatability testing to ensure that such products taste good as well as being nutritious. In a similar manner, we test the palatability of our diets on individual fish species so that we know that fish like them. Thus, instead of relying on just ingredient analysis or traditional components of standard fish feeds, we use our smaller extruder to make test diets and then let the fish tell us what they like. So that we can actually measure these preferences, we have developed assays to test the preference (or palatability) of one ingredient over another. The basis for this technique is actually quite simple. First, we extrude test diets where each diet possesses the identical formula except for one ingredient that differs between them. We have a series of tanks and/or net pens that are stocked with identical numbers of fish that were all reared together previously and fed a single standard food prior to our palatability testing. After dividing this group of fish into tanks or pens, we feed the fish four times per day and carefully count the number of pellets consumed by the fish each in each tank. At the beginning of our palatability testing, we switch the feed in individual tanks to one of our test diets and continue counting pellet consumption. The fish residing in each tank inform us as to their preference since their feeding rates either slows, increases or remains the same as our control diet. Using replicate tanks we are able to verify that all tanks in a group behave the same way, thus validating these results. If the fish tell us they like the “taste” of the ingredient in question, we then evaluate this ingredient in our digestibility studies.
Fish must absorb the constituents of feed and convert them into energy and growth. A key part of this process is how well fish digests the feed. If you’ve ever spent time with an athlete, you have likely heard not all proteins are created equal. Although two ingredients may have the same proximate profile mentioned earlier, they may not be equally absorbed once in the body. This is the reason two different fish feeds with a “40% protein” could functionally be very different. Not only will the fish not be able to utilize a poor protein source to grow, but lower quality ingredients also pass through undigested which can contribute to poor water quality and low dissolved oxygen levels. Digestibility measurements in fish are performed in a very similar way to terrestrial animals. We use an established protocol which lets us know if the protein source we are feeding is actually bioavailable to fish we are feeding.
After making it through the digestibility studies, a recipe or formulation is created. These feed formulations are assembled using multiple ingredients that balance fish and feed performance, cost and other factors such as how the feed behaves in fish feeders and during storage. In this regard, Dr. Steven Craig is our “head chef” and possesses extensive experience in commercial aquaculture production, feed mill operations and feed formulations. He brings this experience to the world of pond feed where his knowledge can be used to create the best products.
To be truly successful, our feeds have to work in your pond. Optimal believes that by assessing fish reared in the pond environment we obtain a wealth of knowledge about our feeds by paying close attention to biological changes in fish. This concept is well established in human medicine where annual checkups and laboratory testing of healthy people allows early detection of problems and their correction before more serious health problems arise. Optimal has applied these practices developed in human medicine to fish nutrition research via adopting medical technology to Optimal fish monitoring. We not only weigh and measure fish but also perform blood sampling and analysis together with tissue sampling and histology analysis. Directing our efforts is Dr. William Harris who worked as a medical research physician for over 16 years before coming into the aquaculture industry.
Out of this effort and experience emerged our Optimal Nutritional Monitoring Program. By sampling fish in multiple locations throughout the United States, Optimal has developed metrics to assess fish health and feed performance using data from tissue sampling and analysis. Our goal with Optimal is not only to grow BIG fish, but grow OLD fish. In many areas of agriculture, livestock are fed nutritionally incomplete feeds in order to put on mass quickly. This usually isn’t a problem, as most of these animals are harvested before the potential nutrient deficiencies can really manifest themselves. Optimal Fish Food will not just fill up bellies, but also promises to provide a diet balanced to promote overall health and longevity.
We would like to end by sincerely thanking the aquaponics, aquaculture, and pond & lake management communities for their involvement and interest in what we do. Without people like you, the continued growth and development of sustainable fisheries would not exist. We are all passionate about what we do, and it is our hope at Optimal that we continue to grow this industry, this passion, together. We want to continue to provide open dialogue, transparent solutions, and feed that promotes fish health and longevity. Optimal feels these interactions are critical if we are to be a true partner, a real contributor, to this industry
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