Insect Farming's Road to Profit

08:37AM Nov 08, 2014
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Bugs offer alternative feed source for cattle, hogs, poultry and fish

Glen Courtright grows bugs. His larvae bins in Yellow Springs, Ohio, are full 365 days a year. The love shack, the nonstop mating room at his 20,000-sq.-ft. EnviroFlight facility, is filled with reproducing black soldier flies—yet Courtright faces a backlog of orders. 

The market for insect products is expanding to include a feed source for hogs, cattle, fish and pets. Courtright is tapping into the demand vein and turning a profit.

EnviroFlight processes a single insect: non-pathogenic black soldier flies that don’t spread disease. The flies emerge as adults with fat in their bodies and die when the fat is depleted. They only drink and never eat as adults, but as larvae, they consume massive amounts of organic material and transform it into fat and protein. EnviroFlight then uses the insect proteins as a replacement for fish meal.

Inside the love shack, which echoes with Barry White tunes from wall-mounted speakers, black soldier fly eggs (the size of a pinhead) are collected and hatched in a nursery where they remain for two weeks before being transferred to feeding bins in the production room. The larvae are given a diet of pre-consumer waste—anything from cookie crumbs to brewer’s grains to leftovers from local production plants. EnviroFlight only uses feed ingredients approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

Black soldier flies listen to Barry White tunes while reproducing in the love shack—EnviroFlight’s breeding room in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Courtright takes advantage of 35 million tons of food waste per year, often obtained for free. Sometimes he’s even paid to use the scraps. “We get waste from food processing plants, cookie meal, distiller’s grains and other sources,” says Courtright, EnviroFlight CEO and founder. The bugs eat the waste material, consuming 90% of it and leaving behind the fiber, or frass.

After two weeks, the larvae are ready for harvest. They are separated from the frass, cooked and dried. After the oil is extracted, the remaining solids are pulverized into meal. The meal is combined with other ingredients—soybeans, corn, vitamins and minerals—and compressed into pellets. EnviroFlight is capable of producing 300 tons of insect meal per year in a 3,600-sq.-ft. building. 

“A certain number of the bugs are allowed to live and produce offspring to continue the cycle. This is about feed augmentation for agriculture, and the process goes on every day of the year,” he adds.

The separated frass is not wasted. It is used as a high-protein, low-fat feedstuff for omnivorous aquaculture species, such as tilapia, prawns and catfish. It is also a beneficial protein source for cattle, swine and poultry. 

Courtright sells the insect products to the pet food industry, organic farmers and zoos nationwide. However, he has a backlog of orders into 2015 to provide insect meal for several large companies running feed tests for cattle, hogs, fish and pets. 

Hopeful that insect feed will have Food and Drug Administration approval by year’s end, Courtright is looking at other insect products. For example, with distiller’s grains as a feed source, EnviroFlight’s technology stabilizes nitrogen in the frass fiber at 5% to 7%. The frass is stabilized immediately after the larvae consumes the feedstock, preventing ammonia creation and eliminating odor. The byproduct, once sterilized, can be used for cattle feed. 

“If we use DDGS [dried distiller’s grains with solubles] at 28% protein, our process extracts the carbohydrates and fat, bumping up the protein value by 6% to 7%,” he says. 

Black soldier fly larvae are cooked and dried. After oil is extracted, the solids are pulverized with other ingredients into meal and compressed into pellets.  

In addition, black soldier fly larvae produce an oil normally found in coconuts called lauric acid, which has health benefits. Hog farmers and nutritionists have taken a special interest in the fat profile. Courtright is stockpiling the oil for testing.

There is no waste at EnviroFlight. Whether dead flies, larvae, oil or frass, Courtright’s methods are streamlined toward high efficiency.

Insect ingredients, on a pound-per-pound basis, are cheaper than conventional ingredients, Courtright says. “If you’re raising cattle and look at the amount of usable protein produced per acre, cattle are about 20 lb. of usable protein per acre per year. Corn comes in at 225 lb., and soybeans have slightly more than 500 lb. of usable protein per acre,” he says.

EnviroFlight’s system, operating vertically in a factory building, could bring in 1.2 million pounds of usable protein per acre per year.

Courtright aims to develop insect technology further into other cities and even the global market. “The 
input costs are very low, and this system could run anywhere in the world,” he says.

The future of insect farming looks bright to Courtright, who sees a network of profit avenues widening. 

“There’s a good deal of sensational press about people eating bugs, but that’s not what this is about,” he says. “Insect farming is a genuine alternative and a responsible way to recover nutrients back into the food chain.” 

Insect farming is gaining attention across the globe as well. Kathryn Redford, co-owner of Ofbug in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, is breeding mealworms and distributing black soldier fly larvae for research. Ofbug is waiting for the Canadian government to approve insects as a feed ingredient, which she hopes will be granted in early 2015. She believes black soldier flies will be the first insect approved, followed by mealworms and eventually crickets.

“The market for insect-derived products is steadily gaining in the feed industry,” she says. “There’s a strong demand for sustainable products.”  

Ofbug feeds larvae a mix of pre-consumer waste that otherwise would end up in a landfill—a vegetable pulp cocktail of carrots, apples, beets and grains from local breweries.

“It’s only a matter of time before agriculture realizes the important addition that insect-based feed can offer and recognizes the market that is developing,” Redford says. 

To learn more about how insects are being used a unique protein source for hogs, cattle, fish and pets, visit