Supplemental feeding of dried distiller's grains to cattle can help produce more beef in grazing programs, says Jim MacDonald, a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station beef nutritionist.

After a summer and fall feeding study done with both heifers and steers, MacDonald said he believes this by-product of ethanol production will be useful in more than just feedlot or dairy operations. In the next few years, an additional 200 to 600 million gallons of ethanol are expected to be produced in the High Plains, MacDonald reports. Production will utilize up to 214 million bushels of corn or sorghum and result in 1.71 million tons of distiller's grains.

"A majority will likely be utilized by feedyards and dairies, but due to the sheer increase in availability, there should be opportunities for cow/calf and stocker operations to use it as well," he says.

The most promising opportunity may be in the situation where lightweight calves are held for a couple of months before they go onto wheat. In his summer grazing study using heifers averaging 600 pounds, he compared feeding 3 pounds of dried distiller's grain per head per day, or approximately 0.5% of the animal’s body weight, to no supplement. Results showed an improvement in gain of a quarter of a pound per head per day over the control calves, according to MacDonald.

In the fall dormant range study, steers weighing approximately 400 pounds were compared at unsupplemented, 1-pound, 2-pound and 3-pound per head per day rates. Gain improved from just over one-half pound per head per day at the 1-pound rate to 1.75 pound per head per day at the highest level of supplementation.

"However, the effect was quadratic in that the more you supplemented, the incremental gain was lower," MacDonald says. "In other words, at the 1-pound rate, the efficiency of gain was about 50 percent, where at the highest rate, it was 40 percent."

During the summer trial, the efficiency was only about 10%, he says, because both sets of animals were eating well on grass and the supplementation did not make as big a difference."So supplementation is more efficient on dormant range, as you would expect," says MacDonald.

The economics of supplementing with distiller's grains will depend on the cost of the product compared to the value of gain, he adds. MacDonald paid $118 per ton for the distiller's grains, which equated to a $12.50 per head investment for $18.80 per head in return over the 63 days the heifers were fed.

As corn prices have risen, so has that of distiller's grain. The same scenario now would have the producer paying $175 per ton, which would result in a $18.96 per head investment for a $16.20 per head return. "Producers need to run the economics in their situation to see if it is a good fit," he emphasizes.
The 56-day fall trial, using the $175 per ton rate for the distiller's grains, resulted in a $16.33 per head investment at the highest level of supplementation, MacDonald said. That investment was worth $68.25 per head.

"The economics would say in the fall or winter scenario, producers will want to supplement at as high levels as possible," he suggests. "And even though this research is conducted with stocker calves, I think there is opportunity for cow/calf producers to utilize the distiller’s grains as well," MacDonald concludes. The supplemental fat has shown to improve reproduction, as well as providing energy to maintain or improve body condition score.

However, potential dangers exist if animals are fed at extreme rates due to fat and sulfur content, he says. Excessive fat can reduce forage digestibility. Also, sulfur can tie up minerals such as copper, creating a deficiency. Excessive sulfur may cause polioencephalomalacia, also known as brainers.

Producers who use distiller's grains need to be cognizant of all sulfur sources, including water, MacDonald cautions. If a producer is feeding distiller's grains high in sulfur and also have sulfur in their water, it could be enough to cause trouble.

Despite that he concludes, "I'm very much enthused about using distiller's grains to produce more beef on a fixed-land base."

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