With prices for feed, fuel and pasture driving up cow costs — and drought seemingly always just around the corner — ranchers are looking for ways to sharpen efficiency and reduce costs. For those lucky enough to operate in the shadow of an ethanol-production facility, the answer is often distillers grains (DGs).

John Maddux, a cow-calf, yearling and cattle-feeding operator in Wauneta, NE, is well familiar with the use of DGs in his cattle-feeding and yearling enterprises, for which he contracts his supply from two plants within 35 miles of his operation. But he also uses the byproduct in limited winter situations when heavy snows occasionally bury the Sandhills grass and crop residue his cows almost entirely subsist on from November through early April.

“I'll bet we didn't feed more than 10 lbs./head of DGs to our cows this year. The only time was when we had a foot of snow that covered up their grazing, and a day or two ahead of bringing them back on grass in the spring,” Maddux says.

But DGs played a particularly large role for his cow operation during a disastrous 2000-2005 drought, he says, that prompted him to early-wean his calves at 75-100 days, cull the bottom 25% of his herd, and drylot the remaining 2,600 cows on a limit-feeding program. The ration consisted of 8-10 lbs. of corn, plus DGs and roughage.

“Granted it was during a period of cheap corn, but we were able to feed our cows in drylot on that ration cheaper than renting grass. We fed our cows for 55-85¢/head/day on DGs; trucking them to grass would have been upwards of $1/cow/day.

“Without that ration, we would have likely been forced to cut half the herd. But the big plus was that our grass came through the drought in excellent shape, just because we weren't forced to use it very hard during the drought,” Maddux says.

Jason Bakke is a commercial cow-calf producer and cattle feeder on a smaller scale; he's come to depend heavily on wet DGs (40-70% moisture) and syrup byproducts he acquires from a plant just 17 miles away from his Pierz, MN operation. He's used DGs or “syrup” (solubles) for 3-4 years in his 300-head feedlot but was forced to add it to the winter menu of his cows last year due to drought.

Bakke buys the wet DGs on the spot market as he needs it, typically buying a 14-ton load twice weekly. He prefers the syrup, which isn't always available, because it's free.

Bakke's winter-feeding season typically begins in mid-October when the grass “runs out.” Until last season, he had supplemented hay to his cows until May 20 when the herd traditionally moves to spring pasture for calving. He weans in December, and those calves go to his feedlot.

A shortage of grass and hay last winter due to drought, however, had him feeding wet DGs or syrup mixed with ground swamp hay and fed by mixer wagon (25 lbs. of wet DGs and 15 lbs. of hay/head/day) to his 140 cows. He liked the program well enough that he plans to do it again this winter, as long as DGs stay at a “fairly reasonable price.” That threshold is $35/ton.

If you can get it

Maddux and Bakke are among the 13% of cow-calf operations in the U.S. utilizing ethanol co-products as livestock feed, according to a recent USDA survey. Conversely, 38% of dairy operations, 36% of cattle-feeding operations, and 12% of hog operations utilize the products.

It's an option more cow-calf producers should consider, if they live near an available supply and it pencils out, say Aaron Stalker and Alfredo DiCostanzo. Stalker is a University of Nebraska Lincoln (UNL) ruminant nutritionist, while DiCostanzo is a professor of beef cattle nutrition and management at the University of Minnesota.

Each bushel of corn used in biofuels production results in 2.65 gals. of ethanol and 17 lbs. of air-dry DGs. Stalker says producers often confuse DGs, a product of the dry-milling process that produces ethanol, with corn gluten, which is a co-product of the wet-milling industry that produces high-fructose corn syrup.

In general, DGs — available as either wet or dry products — are higher in nutrient concentration than gluten feed. DGs average 32% crude protein (CP) and 10-12% fat, while gluten feed averages 22-23% CP and 3% fat. From a protein basis, DGs are extremely close to a 30-32% range cube, but the energy value is as much as 50% higher.

“While variation exists from plant to plant, and even within plants, what's great about DGs is that 65% of the protein is undegraded — or bypass — protein, which is really beneficial to animals with a high protein requirement,” Stalker says, particularly on low-quality forage diets. DGs are also an excellent source of phosphorus, especially important given today's high prices for phosphorus, he adds.

In fact, Illinois research reported in a 2005 Iowa State University fact sheet entitled “Distillers Grains for Beef Cows,” found that DGs can be one of the best supplements for corn stalk-based beef cow feeding programs. Researchers found that protein and energy requirements were met when DGs were fed as a supplement to corn stalks:

  • For average cows in good condition for the last 1/3 of gestation, 3-5 lbs. of DGs dried, or 8-15 lbs. of wet DGs/day.

  • For average cows in good condition for early lactation, 6-8 lbs. of DGs dried or 20-23 lbs. of wet DGs.

Fine-tune your rations

Producers need to remember that cow rations should be fine-tuned to the specific cow size, stage of production, condition score and weight-gain requirements, environmental conditions, feed analyses and operational goals. Additionally, vitamin and mineral ration concentrations need to be evaluated, as well.

Because of the potential for variability among DGs — even from the same plant on the same day — Stalker suggests producers have a nutrient analysis done to ascertain the quality of DGs and any nutrient concerns.

In addition, he offers these tips:

  • DGs' high fat content can decrease fiber digestion. The common feeding rule is to not exceed 5% fat in the diet. Thus, DGs shouldn't make up more than 50% of the diet provided there are no other fat sources in the diet.

  • The maximum tolerable limit of sulfur in a cow's diet is 0.4%. Since DGs can be high in sulfur, keeping DGs at 50% or less inclusion in the diet should avoid a high sulfur risk provided there are no other sulfur sources in the diet. Supplementing thiamin, a B vitamin, can also minimize the risk. Water is often a source of dietary sulfur and should be tested for sulfate levels when feeding high levels of DGs.

  • Because DGs are high in phosphorus, supplemental calcium may be needed to balance the diet's calcium:phosphorus ratio.

Stalker points out that wet DGs typically are priced relative to corn; in Nebraska, DGs are priced at 80-85% of the price of corn on a dry-matter basis. That's a steal, he says, given that on a nutrient basis, DGs have more protein and energy than corn.

“Economists tell me that eventually the true economic value of DGs will be realized and it will be more expensive than corn on a pound-for-pound basis. But for right now and historically, DGs have been sold at a discount to corn,” Stalker says.

In deciding on any feed product, Stalker suggests producers price protein supplements on a per-unit-of-crude-protein basis and then compare their options.

“It may work out that alfalfa hay is the least expensive protein source, but you still must consider how far you have to transport the alfalfa, loss in feeding, etc.,” he says.

Now's the time to buy

Prices of ethanol co-products are at their seasonal low during summer months. “If a producer can get his inventory storage set up to receive and store wet DGs in the next 6-9 weeks, he's likely to get the best prices this whole year will offer,” DiCostanzo said in mid-August.

He estimates that most Minnesota feedlots located within 70 miles or so of an ethanol-production facility are utilizing co-products. But among the state's cow-calf producers, usage of co-products is likely less than 20%. One reason is that Minnesota's average herd size is less than 50 head, he reports.

“That means smaller operators wishing to utilize this co-product must either group together to purchase a semi-load at regular intervals of two weeks or less, or purchase singly and be prepared to preserve a semi-load at less regular intervals,” he says.

UNL researchers have designed a spreadsheet to help producers better calculate the costs of storing wet DGs or other co-products on site. Co-Product STORE (Storage To Optimize Ration Expenses) allows producers to analyze and evaluate specific storage scenarios to take advantage of seasonal price lows. Producers then can store the co-product and feed it at a later date.

The spreadsheet is organized into four, user-friendly steps that allow producers to define costs and include parameters that represent their own operations. Producers input several parameters unique to their situation in the spreadsheet to calculate their costs, including co-product material and transportation quantities and prices, storage and feeding dates, estimated shrink, and equipment, labor and interest costs.

Co-product STORE is available at the UNL Beef website at http://beef.unl.edu. In addition, check out a manual also available on the UNL Beef website called “Storage of Wet Corn Co-Products.”

For still more information, read “The Ins & Outs Of Storing Distillers Grains” in the May 2008 issue of BEEF (http://beefmagazine.com/markets/feed/0501-storing-wet-distillers-grains/).