Oilseeds are also important in animal nutrition as they are used in animal feed. Because of economic and nutritional reasons (e.g. a better price can be obtained by making the oilseeds available to the human food market, and the presence of naturally occurring toxic compounds and antinutrients), only a small proportion of oilseeds are fed to animals as whole seeds. However, oilseed meal, which is a by-product of processing the seeds for oil, is used extensively in animal feeds and is therefore an important economic aspect of oilseed production.

Compound feeds are manufactured from a mixture of feed materials designed to achieve pre-determined performance objectives among the animals. These raw materials are obtained from a wide variety of sources. Hence, this industry provides a major market for EU cereals, oilseeds and pulses. Some feed materials are obtained from the co-products of the food industry. Other important ingredients which cannot be grown in sufficient quantity in the EU are imported from third countries.

Since the EU ban on the use of MBM began; the EU has largely replaced the loss of MBM by using additional volumes of other protein sources, mainly soy meal, the vast majority of which has been imported.

The increased demand for white meat around the world over the last 30 years has helped to fuel a large increase in the demand for high quality feedstuffs for these livestock sectors. This outlines the relationship between oilseed meals and intensive livestock production, which will continue to encourage increased production of oilseeds meals as a protein source.

Oilseeds meals as protein sources

A breakdown of the main protein sources used in the manufacture of compound feed in the EU is shown in Table 1. Cereals are used in animal feeds mainly as a carbohydrate energy source. Oilseed meals and cakes (such as soy meal) are mainly used as primary source of protein.

As illustrated in Table 2 Soybean meal is the most used and preferred protein source in the EU animal feed sector accounting for 64% of total protein material used (in protein equivalent terms).

No other vegetable protein sources used come near soybean meal in terms of importance.


Table 1: Sources of Proteins for Feed in EU-28 in 2016/2017 (expressed in "equivalent protein" excl. forages)

Table 2: Use of protein material by the EU animal feed sector


This importance of soybean meal reflects its high level of protein in relation to all other, consistent availability and price competitiveness and its higher level of lysine compared to other vegetable-based products like rapeseed meal (giving it a higher level of digestibility). It is particularly attractive as an ingredient for feeds used in the pig and poultry sectors. In the ruminant sector, protein content is less crucial and other meals like rapeseed meal tend to be more readily substitutes for soya.

Most protein sources are considered to be largely interchangeable from the point of view of feed manufacturers and hence, price tends to be the key determinant influencing which meals are used. Nevertheless, different oilseed meals have different nutritional values and digestibility. Some (notably soybean meal) are considered to be a necessary ingredient in certain compound feeds (i.e. demand is less price responsive than direct substitute ingredients), whilst others tend to be used only when price considerations allow.

The main reason for the dominance of soybean meal as a protein ingredient is its relatively high protein content of 44-46% (see table 3). In contrast, rapeseed meal has a lower protein level (34-38%) and higher fibre content (this means it has a slightly lower level of energy content) relative to soybean meal.

A summary of some of the key features of various oilseed meals as protein sources is presented in Table 3.

Protein source Comments (relative to soya)
Soybean meal Protein 44%-46%, lysine 2.8%, good palatability. Because of its amino acid profile is highly digestible fits the requirements of many animals during all stages of their life. Incorporation rate of 20% common in pig feed.
Rapeseed meal Lower protein level (34-38%) lower lysine level (2.27%), excellent balance of essential amino acids, slightly higher levels of methionine and cystine, higher fibre level than soya. Can be used as substitute for soya (e.g. up to half of soya used in pig feed could technically be substituted, not a preferred ingredient in the poultry sector.
Sunflower meal Lower protein level (30-35%), lower lysine level (1.68%) than soy meal but more methionine. Must be fortified with soybean meal to be used for feeding pigs and poultry. When used for feeding ruminants and horses it is generally mixed with grain.

Table 3 : Main protein sources used in animal feed: some key features

The nutritional composition of feed will vary according to which specific livestock type it is served. Thus it varies by animal type, age of animal and the purpose it is being raised (e.g. eggs, meat, milk). In general, non-ruminants like pigs and poultry require protein rich feeds whilst ruminants require feeds with higher fibre and energy content.

As indicated above, in terms of preferences for different protein sources, soybean meal is the most used source and is generally considered as the standard against which alternatives are measured against. General preference for soya reflects the following:

  • Its high level of protein relative to all other sources (with the exceptions of fishmeal and MBM);
  • Abundant and consistent availability;
  • Consistent price competitiveness relative to alternatives – this does, however varies with time;
  • It has a higher level of lysine (but slightly lower levels of methionine and cystine) than other vegetable-based products like rapeseed meal. The amino acid composition in soybean meal is nearly comparable to that of milk protein and complementary to the amino acid profile of maize.
  • Overall these are the amino acids most deficient in cereals hence the desirability for incorporating oilseeds with cereals. Soya’s higher level of lysine than other protein-based vegetable alternative like rapeseed meal means that overall (and despite slightly lower levels of methionine and cystine) it has a higher level of digestibility than other vegetable-based protein meals used in a feed ration.