Although corn prices are now sliding, when corn was $8 per bushel, some cattle folk grabbed their calculators and decided distillers grains were a more affordable option for a feed alternative. Distillers grains are the main byproduct of ethanol production and is sold as wet stillage (20-30 percent dry matter) or dry (90 percent dry matter).
According to the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) of Canada, “Bioethanol production is expected to generate approximately 1.8 million tons of dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) in North America this year. Typically, stillage is further separated into distillers’ grains and solubles. Solubles are recovered and incorporated into the distillers’ grains, called distillers’ grains with solubles (DGS). DGS can be used wet (WDGS) but is often dried (DDGS) in order to reduce shipping costs.”
There are certainly some considerations for livestock producers when using distillers grains. There is considerable variation in the composition of distillers grains, depending on whether it’s processed by dry or wet milling before it is fermented.
BCRC explains how the composition changes nutritional value during processing. BCRC says, “Because starch is almost completely removed in the process to distill ethanol, concentration of other components, except calcium, is enhanced significantly. For example, fat, protein, fibre, phosphorus and sulfur are roughly three times as concentrated in DDGS than in the original grain.”
Warren Symens of Symens Brothers Limousin near Amherst, S.D., uses distillers grains on his operation in a few different ways. In the feedlot, Symens uses a 61 millicalorie (mCal) ration, with up to 30 percent of the diet as-fed; in a replacement heifer grower setting, he uses a 42 mCal ration, with roughly 7 percent of the diet as-fed; for growing bulls, he uses a 54 mCal ration, with up to 20 percent of the diet as-fed. He also gives corn syrup to the bred heifers and cows, also utilizing poorer feed like wheat straw and corn stalks, along with corn silage, for about 15-20 percent of the diet as-fed.
“The biggest benefits of feeding distillers in our operation is it makes it easier to balance a ration for energy and protein,” said Warren. “It also allows for the use of poorer feedstuffs, as cows will eat almost anything soaked in syrup. It’s highly palatable and is a cheaper energy than corn and a cheaper protein than high-quality hay.”
For ranchers who have an ethanol plant near them, taking advantage of distillers grains is a cheap feedstuff; however, it does come with some concerns.
According to BCRC, “Dietary starch, fiber and protein levels can affect the pH of a ruminant’s digestive tract, which may in turn affect how well various microbes survive and compete in the animal’s rumen, intestine and manure. This can effect animal health and welfare, food safety and feed efficacy. The manner in which distillers grains are dried can also affect nutritional value. Due to the various factors (grain type, moisture, solubles, milling and drying) that can influence composition, chemical analyses are recommended before using these byproducts to feed beef cattle.”
For Symens, there are a few shortcomings of using distillers grains, but nothing that isn’t manageable.
“There is a short shelf life of the distillers grains, and the logistics of handling the syrup can be tricky,” he noted. “There is an occasional quality variations of the product at the plant, as well.”
Currently, Symens utilizes distillers grains from a plant in Mina, S.D., about 70 miles away from the ranch. The current price is $120 per ton, delivered. It is uneconomical to transport the product at any great distance form a biofuel plant, but if the numbers pencil out, a rancher can establish a relationship with a plant. The expansion of ethanol production across the country has allowed livestock producers more opportunities to use this feedstuff.
“Modified distillers grains seem to work best for us,” said Symens of his experience feeding it to his cattle. “The moisture is just right, and it’s easy to balance into the ration. Dried seems to blow around, and the quality of dry distillers seems harder to control at the plant. Wet seems almost too wet, and moisture is often variable.”
Ranchers should double check how long the product can be stored. For example, wet distillers deteriorate more quickly in the open, but can be stored for months with under 10 percent loss of nutrients if kept in a silo or with effective ensiling practice.
BCRC says, “At levels generally below 15 percent of the diet, dry basis, DGS is an excellent alternative to soybean or canola meal as a protein supplement. DGS is relatively high in rumen bypass protein with DDGS having slightly more than WDGS. DGS should not exceed 50 percent of a feedlot diet, because fat content of the complete diet for feedlot cattle should not exceed 6 percent. At levels up to 50 percent of the diet, dry basis, DGS is an excellent source of energy. Once the animals protein requirements have been met, excess dietary protein is used for energy instead.”
Symens offered some advice for other ranchers if they are considering adding distillers into their feeding program.
“When buying distillers, make sure you can use it before it spoils,” he advised. “Work closely with a nutritionist to balance out the phosphorous and the sulphur in the ration, as well as calculating the cost against corn, hay, and soybean meal. It’s also important to find a reliable delivery company.”
Distillers grains can be an excellent protein and energy source to use in mixed rations when feeding cattle, whether in a feedlot or as a supplement for calves in summer grazing situations. It is a great supplement for gestating cows during the winter months
DGS is an excellent energy source for supplementing any type of forage fed to cows, as well.
For more information and further considerations on distillers grains, check out http://www.beefresearch.ca/research-topic.cfm/distillers-grains-4.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News