Like it or not, distiller's grains will figure into feedyard rations for the foreseeable future. To learn more about how the rapid growth in ethanol production and the resulting availability of distiller's grains is affecting cattle feeders, BEEF magazine teamed up with Kansas State University's (KSU) Department of Ag Economics to conduct a survey of BEEF Feeder readers about distiller's grains usage.

The study was conducted by graduate student Josh Hoeme along with KSU professors Jim Mintert, Ted Schroeder and Mike Woolverton, with funding from the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (www.agmrc.org). The results show cattle feeders have mixed feelings about distiller's grains.

Among cattle feeders responding to the survey, a third don't include distiller's grains in the ration, with 59% citing handling issues as the overriding reason. Close behind was availability and cattle quality/yield impact, both garnering a 39% response. Animal gain performance was listed by 20% of respondents as a concern with distiller's grains in the ration.

Of the two-thirds of respondents who do include distiller's grains in the ration, the percentage of both wet distiller's grains with solubles (WDGS) and dried distiller's grains with solubles (DDGS) included in the ration varied widely. Of the 26% of respondents feeding DDGS, the average usage level in the ration was 16% DDGS, though reported rates ranged from 3% to 85%.

More feeders use WDGS, with 84% saying they include it in their rations. (The total is more than 100% because some feeders use both.) Feeders using WDGS reported feeding rations that varied from 5% to 67% WDGS, with an average of 27%.

Among feeders utilizing distiller's grains, 18% prefer DDGS and 82% prefer it wet. Those preferring the dry product indicated handling ease as an important advantage over wet distiller's grains. Among feeders who prefer WDGS, price was the dominant factor.

When asked how much they are willing to pay for DDGS and WDGS, BEEF readers gave a range of answers. With corn prices at $2/bu., feeders were willing, on average, to pay $61.97/ton and $27.59/ton for DDGS and WDGS, respectively. However, if corn prices were to hit $5/bu., cattle feeders said they would pay, on average, $145.65/ton for DDGS and $65.59/ton for WDGS.

To put this in perspective, KSU researchers say USDA reported mid-June prices for DDGS in northeast Iowa ranged from $90 to $105/ton, while cash corn was trading from $3.91 to $4.04/bu.

The process by which ethanol is produced concentrates nutrients in the distiller's grains products, particularly sulfur, phosphorus and other minerals. This has possible environmental impacts for cattle feeders who harvest manure as an organic fertilizer.

However, a large proportion of respondents knew relatively little about how feeding distiller's grains affects manure's nutrient content. For example, around 69% of DDGS users and 61% of WDGS users said they were uncertain about how feeding the product affects manure's phosphorus level. Even more uncertainty existed with respect to how sulfur and nitrogen levels are affected.

All in all, the survey indicates there's still much to learn about how distiller's grains will affect the cattle industry and fed-cattle production. There is one certainty, however, cattlemen can count on — there will be plenty of distiller's grains out there.

When converted to ethanol, 1 bu. of corn produces 17-18 lbs. of distiller's grains. New plant construction, on top of plants already online, will push corn used for ethanol production in the 2007/2008 crop year to about 3.4 billion bu. If that comes to pass, the ethanol industry will have around 30 million tons of distiller's grains to deal with.

And they'll be looking to cattle to help them, giving cattlemen and researchers alike plenty of reason to keep the learning curve steep.

Click to read the results of the BEEF-KSU survey (Word document)