Battling myths about ethanol, DDGS not easy, but important

What do you say when you encounter people with misinformation about ethanol and distillers grains? Although I’m getting better the more I learn, I have to admit I’ve frozen up on more than a few occasions.
By Holly Jessen | August 02, 2011

Earlier this summer I attended a funeral for someone on my husband’s side of the family. Other than my husband, brother-in-law and parents-in-law, I knew very few people by name. These are see-them-at-weddings-and-funeral relatives, not Thanksgiving and Christmas relatives. Plus, and I’m not making excuses here, my father-in-law is one of 10 siblings, so it’s pretty hard to keep track. OK, so I am making excuses. After seven years of marriage I should have this down but it’s too late to ask now!

As I sat in the potluck hall, I was joined by a friendly aunt type person. If you must know, she’s my father-in-law’s sister’s daughter and I’ve completely forgotten her name. To make conversation, she asked what I do for a living. This is always an interesting juncture. When I say I write about ethanol, will the person blink, say “That’s interesting,” and move on? Or will he or she start listing the evils of ethanol as they know it?

In this case, she picked option C. She told me she’d heard a lot of unspecific talk about how ethanol is bad but she genuinely wanted to know my take on it. I was in the middle of telling her when her adult son wandered over.

I watched his eyes light up. I thought, “This can’t be good.” He told an obviously oft-repeated family story about the time his grandfather picked up “waste product” from an ethanol plant and delivered it to a feedlot. That’s where he saw it: a drunk cow, staggering around and presumably hiccupping all due to the fact that it was eating the leftovers from producing ethanol.

This story brought up a lot of questions for me. Was the cow really drunk or just sick? Could an animal possibly get intoxicated from eating distillers grains? After I got back to work I asked a few sources about this and the general consensus was that distillers grains will not and cannot get a cow drunk. Why would an ethanol plant leave profits on the table by allowing its main product to piggyback with its distillers grains and go down the gullet of cows? One source told me it’s possible this was spent brewer’s grains from a brewing operation, not ethanol production.

But back to that moment at the funeral. The story sounded very fishy to me but I had nothing to back that up. What did I do? First off, I stayed away from the drunk cow story. There’s no way I was going to tackle beloved family lore that had obviously been repeated and laughed about many times over the years. I probably wouldn’t have succeeded in changing their minds anyway.

Instead, I corrected the misconception that distillers grains is nothing but a waste product. It’s a coproduct of ethanol production that has value for the plant as well as for a feed ingredient for livestock. It’s widely used by many in the cattle, poultry and swine industries, which itself should illistrate it's safe for livestock to eat.

Although I’m not actually a member of the ethanol industry, I do my best to correct misconceptions when I am confronted by them. Somehow I doubt I’ll ever come across another story about a cow drunk off distillers grains. But if I do, I’ll be better prepared to answer intelligently.