In the life of a first-calf heifer, there are very few things you can be sure of.

You can, however, count on this — it isn't easy. Not only are heifers still growing, they're carrying a calf.

“Often,” says Jim MacDonald, nutritionist at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Amarillo, “it's very difficult for them to consume enough energy to meet their own growth needs and that of the fetus, especially in the third trimester.”

Which is why, of course, nutritionists, university types and just about everyone else have long recommended a supplementation program for first-calf heifers. The protein and energy in the supplement is critical in providing the nutritional needs that allow heifers to produce a healthy calf, meet their genetic potential for mature size and rebreed quickly.

There are also, in this business of ranching, very few absolutes. You can, however, add this to your short list — the ethanol industry will be the most important factor in your ranching life for the foreseeable future.

That's a bad news/good news sort of scenario. The bad news is higher corn costs and significantly lower feeder cattle prices. The good news is the mountains of distiller's grains that result from ethanol production and the role they may play in helping offset feed costs.

Where those lines intersect to your benefit and that of your first-calf heifers is using distiller's grains as a forage supplement.

Distiller's grains come in a variety of forms, but generally are very high in protein, energy in the form of fat, and minerals. That's because the ethanol production process removes the starch from the corn kernel and concentrates the protein, oil and minerals. That concentration creates an attractive feed supplement for both first-calf heifers and mature cows.

In fact, as a supplement in a forage-based diet, distiller's grains can have an energy value as high as 125% of corn and be nearly 30% crude protein. Depending on cost, distiller's grains may be a viable substitute for your current supplementation program.

Many ranchers throughout the Great Plains and West use range cubes as their winter supplement. Commercial feed companies will make range cubes in a variety of protein levels, usually 20%, 30-32% and 38-40%.

“From a protein basis, the distiller's grains are extremely close to that 30-32% range cube,” says Ted McCollum, Extension beef specialist in Amarillo. “But the energy value is going to be 30-50% higher.”

Time to sub?

So the first step is to compare your current supplement, based on cost per unit of protein and energy, with your cost of distiller's grains. Depending on how far you are from the ethanol plant, you may be able to substitute distiller's grains for your traditional supplement at equal or even reduced cost.

“But also realize that there may be some handling issues on the ranch with distiller's grains compared to feeding range cubes,” McCollum says.

Rick Funston, a reproductive physiologist with the University of Nebraska's West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, agrees.

“You've got to evaluate it on a unit of energy and protein basis, delivered to your facility, and considerations with handling,” he says.

Those handling considerations can be huge. Distiller's grains come in several forms. Straight from the ethanol plant, the product is called wet distiller's grains and contains around 65% water and 35% dry matter. Wet distiller's grains create a handling challenge because of its mud-like consistency.

When dried, distiller's grains are about 90% dry matter and have a meal-like consistency. Dried distiller's grains can also be cubed, pelleted or mixed with other feeds.

While cubes and pellets are the most convenient way to handle, store and feed distiller's grains, it's also the most expensive.

Since the cube feeder mounted on the back of your flatbed isn't designed to handle the mucky consistency of wet distiller's grains, you also have to factor in the cost of an alternative storage and delivery system, not to mention being able to feed it.

Some folks, Funston says, just put wet distiller's grains on the ground, which works fairly well, especially when the ground is frozen. If you do that, McCollum says, you'll have to factor in some waste through trampling.

But if you can buy wet distiller's grains at a competitive cost, it may be worth your time to use a little midnight oil and some sharp pencils figuring out a way to handle it.

“Looking into the future, if the availability of these byproducts is going to grow, then maybe a producer needs to consider investing in some troughs or some kind of feeding apparatus that, over the next 10-15 years, will allow him to capitalize on these lower-priced commodities,” McCollum says.

However, before you get too excited about using distiller's grains with your first-calf heifers, consider this — distiller's grains are high in several minerals, including phosphorus, potassium and sulfur. That's another bad news/good news issue. Minerals can be important, especially in winter when forage-based diets are typically low in protein and phosphorus.

“We usually need to supplement phosphorus in high-forage cow diets,” Funston says. So if you use distiller's grains, you may be able to eliminate phosphorus from your mineral supplement, which can reduce costs.

“But when we talk about mineral considerations, the thing that will get you in trouble with distiller's grains is the sulfur,” MacDonald adds.

While the industry still doesn't know exactly how much sulfur is too much, as a general rule, cattle don't need a whole lot. If they get too much, several things happen, none of which are good. Sulfur ties up copper in the body, which can result in a copper deficiency. That can have negative ramifications on reproductive efficiency.

And at very high levels, sulfur causes a polio-like condition in cattle that can be fatal. While it's not widespread, McCollum knows of several ranchers who have lost cattle to this condition when feeding distiller's grains.

“The way to control that is to control the sulfur,” MacDonald says. “You need to know the sulfur content of everything your cows consume, including your water, as well as the load of distiller's grains you received. Then limit the intake of distiller's grains.”

How much to feed?

MacDonald says a safe and conservative amount, especially if sulfur is a consideration, is ½% of body weight/day on a dry matter basis, assuming your heifers are consuming about 2-2½% of body weight in total intake.

So, if you're aiming to have your first-calf heifers weighing about 60% of mature size at breeding, you're looking at feeding 3 to 3½ lbs. of distiller's grains/day on a dry matter basis.

Funston's research last year compared dried distiller's grains with corn gluten feed as a supplement for first-calf heifers, shooting for an average daily gain of 1½ lbs./day. That gain allowed them to achieve about 60% of mature weight at the time of breeding. To do that, the dried distiller's grains were fed at 0.57% of body weight, while the corn gluten feed was fed at 0.73%.

Weight at puberty was slightly higher for the heifers supplemented with dried distiller's grains. Artificial insemination (AI) rate was greater as well, with 75% of the heifers on a dried distiller's supplement conceiving after AI, compared with 53% of the heifers fed corn gluten feed. Overall pregnancy rates following exposure to bulls were equal, with 89% of heifers fed dried distiller's grains and corn gluten feed conceiving.

There are, the researchers say, a lot of things the industry still needs to learn about how distiller's grains can fit into a commercial cattle operation. Not the least of these is storage, as wet distiller's grains are highly prone to spoil, and quickly. But one thing is certain — there will be plenty of distiller's grains available.