There are hundreds of by-product feeds available around the country: corn gluten and distillers' grains in the Cornbelt; wheat midds in the Plains, potato waste in the Northwest, chicken litter, rice bran and cottonseed in the South. The list keeps growing as the world demand for food products expands, and the value-added concept hits the front burner.

Any way you look at it, by-products are big business. They also offer a real potential to trim feeding costs and boost cattle performance.

However, you must do your homework to make sure a by-product fits your needs and is available at a competitive price, whether for brood cows, stockers or in the feedlot, advises Monty Kerley, University of Missouri Extension nutritionist.

Feeding by-products isn't a practice without criticism, however. Mostly this is confined to two areas: Food safety concerns of feeding chicken litter and ruminant by-products like blood meal to cattle.

The added competition for corn in feedlot country from new alcohol plants that produce ethanol and provide wet and dry distillers' grain solubles, a nutritious source of energy and protein in cattle rations.

Controversial Feedstuffs Feeding chicken litter and ruminant by-products like blood meal have raised concerns about beef's image, even among cattle producers. Two examples are located on page 23 of this issue in the form of reader letters responding to an October article defending the practice of poultry litter feeding.

"Consumers don't want manure fed to their beef," one reader wrote. "The place for that is on the land for fertilizer. If we don't do what we can to please the consumer, we're headed for another round of decreased beef consumption, lower prices and poorer cattlemen."

A rebuttal was provided by Glenn Smith, executive director of the Georgia Cattlemen's Association. He notes that years of research shows the practice is not only safe, but if handled correctly, is the smart, economical thing to do.

By-products do offer a significant potential to reduce feed costs and enhance animal performance. But, each by-product has its plusses and minuses, Kerley points out.

Certain by-products are particularly adapted to different phases in the production cycle. For example, in designing supplements using by-products for brood cows or stockers, look at how these alternative feeds complement forage intake and digestion compared with corn, which if fed above optimum levels of 0.2 to 0.3% of body weight, could reduce forage utilization, Kerley says.

"Using by-product feeds depends on being able to locate the feedstuffs, capability to store and handle the materials and sufficient nutritional information to effectively incorporate feeds into diets and supplements," he says.

You must also recognize that by-products may vary widely in nutrient content, Kerley notes. That's why analysis is so important if you're buying the raw product. It's also a good rationale for buying through a commercial feed supplier, who typically has gone through a lot of testing to make sure the product is consistent.

Checklist Of Availability If you're exploring feeding by-products, Kerley says to consider these factors: price, availability, handling/mixing, storage/shelf life and consistency.

Once you've decided to go the by-product route, here are some sources to check for availability: Companies such as Cargill; Archer-Daniels-Midland; Producers Coop Association, Girard, KS; or Riceland Foods, Stuttgart, AR; all of which sell by-products as an alternative to other disposal systems.

Brokers that may offer several different by-products. Feed suppliers who offer branded products including one or more of these by-products.

One quick source in the Midwest is the By-product Feed Price List prepared by the University of Missouri. Similar programs may be available in your area.

You can access the Missouri price list either through your regional livestock specialist or on the Internet at: www.ext.missouri.edu/agebb/ansci/dairy

The report is updated weekly and lists company sources, prices and delivery details on nearly 40 different by-products.

When you contact a supplier, Kerley suggests you ask: What the by-product is. Its physical and chemical characteristics. What is undesirable about the product. The by-product's nutritional analysis.

In addition, a computer program is available to help you evaluate certain by-products to your specific production regime. The IBM-compatible program is called "feedvalu" and is written by Frank Brazle at Kansas State University (KSU).

"It's simple and helps you compare prices," Brazle tells BEEF. "You can use any product as long as you know its analysis."

For more information, call Cathy Bandyk at KSU (785/532-6131).

Since harvested and purchased feeds make up 40% of most cow-calf production costs, you have to constantly look for ways to optimize animal performance and minimize supplement costs, says David Lalman, Oklahoma Extension specialist.

The answer may come from alternative feeds like wheat midds, sunflower and soybean hulls, cottonseed and cottonseed hulls, rice bran, corn gluten, brewers' and distillers' grains. The list goes on and on.

C.Y. Cattle Company, Gove, KS, has used sunflower hulls as a roughage replacing ground alfalfa in its basic feedlot ration for 10 years, according to manager Leroy Heim.

The product comes from a plant in Colby, KS. "It works very well," Heim says. "It's consistent, the moisture content stays steady, and it has good protein and fat content because of the oils and seeds."

Missouri nutritionist Monty Kerley is high on soy hulls as an energy by-product, but also includes corn gluten, distillers' grains, wheat midds and cottonseed in this category. "They are high in digestible fiber and have energy values similar to corn when supplemented to forage-fed cattle," he says.

A recent Missouri study compared soy hulls as a hay replacement for wintering beef cows. Those fed 4 lbs. of soy hulls per day ate less hay, had better body condition and weaned slightly heavier calves, notes Kerley.

A two-year Oklahoma State study compared steers fed fescue forage supplemented with 0.7% body weight of corn, wheat midds and soybean hulls. Cattle gained 0.66 lbs. a day with no supplement, 1.32 lbs. on corn, 1.5 lbs. on soybean hulls and and 1.52 lbs. on wheat midds at a cost of 28 cents /lb. of gain.

"Dry cows fed a winter supplement of rice bran enjoyed a nutritional value similar to soy hulls," Kerley explains. "Rice bran, like whole cottonseed, are energy dense and high in fat which can limit inclusion into the formula (maximum of 6% of the diet)."

Cottonseed hulls are an excellent forage source, but have little nutritional value and should not make up more than 20% of the diet, Kerley says.

Distillers' and brewers' grains have an added value. Their fermentation and drying process can enhance by-pass protein value. Kerley recommends a maximum of 25% in a ration.

Chicken or turkey litter, though facing food safety criticism, gets strong support from most scientists as a cost-effective and valuable feed for beef cows or stockers, if handled correctly.

Ten million tons of litter are produced each year in the Southeast. The leading states are Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia with Alabama alone having 1 million tons suitable for cattle feed, reports B.G. Ruffin of Auburn University. But, poultry production isn't restricted only to that section of the country. It's fed in more than a score of states from California to North Carolina.

Ruffin defends the use of broiler litter to ruminants. He makes this analogy: a cow must be off litter for 15 days before slaughter, but a mushroom can go directly from its bed of manure to the grocery store.

Broiler litter has been used for cattle feed for more than 35 years without harmful effects, insists Arkansas livestock specialist George Davis. But, he emphasizes that the decision whether to use it or not is up to you.

Broiler litter is worth four times as much for cattle feed as fertilizer, Davis points out. It's a good source of protein, energy and minerals, especially for brood cows and stocker cattle. Currently, very little litter is fed to finishing cattle.

In late September, leaders concerned about adverse publicity sent a memo to 12 key officials in key cattle feeding and cow/calf states. "We must be careful to stand on the firm ground of science and not make rash judgments based on emotions," Glenn Smith, executive vice president of the Georgia Cattlemen's Association tells BEEF. "Our industry must be willing to look at poultry litter in the context of a wide array of by-product uses."

After years of research, Matt Poore, ruminant specialist at North Carolina State University, insists that based on scientific studies there is no reason to fear the use of processed broiler litter as a feed.

Ruminants are ideally suited to use by-products and waste products because their rumen is exposed to microbial fermentation before passing to the rest of the digestive tract.

Broiler litter is an economical source of protein, minerals and energy. It's equivalent to good quality hay with a 50% TDN, making it a good source for both stocker cattle and brood cows. However, it does vary in nutrient composition. That's because the product contains manure waste, bedding and spilled feed. For that reason, it should be tested for nutrients, Poore suggests.