USDA report looks at ethanol coproduct use, cattle feeding

By Hope Deutscher | April 14, 2009
Web exclusive posted April 30, 2009, at 3:53 p.m. CST

A recent USDA Economic Research Service report, titled "Ethanol Co-Products Use in U.S. Cattle Feeding: Lessons Learned and Considerations" and authored by Kenneth Mathews and Michael McConnell, highlights the lessons learned by feedlot and ethanol plant managers, as well as considerations for continued use of the coproducts created during the ethanol production.

According to the report, the byproducts of ethanol production - sweeteners, syrups and oils - used to be considered less valuable than the primary products. However, the increased livestock-feed market for such byproducts in the past few years has switched that perception to one of the ethanol industry making grain-based coproducts that have market value separate from the primary products. "Coproducts such as dried distillers grains, corn gluten feed, corn gluten meal, corn oil, solubles, and brewer's grains have become economically viable components, along with traditional ingredients (such as corn, soybean meal, and urea), in feed rations," the report stated.

"One of the things that we learned is that there are a lot of distillers grains available out there but not everyone is using them," Mathews said. "Some are using other things like corn gluten feed and they are using combinations of coproducts and combinations of coproducts with other feeds. It was a little bit of an eye opener for us because we sit here and we read a lot of stuff and practically everything you read right now is on distillers grains. It was interesting to find out that not everyone is feeding these distillers grains."

One of the most common obstacles, Mathews and McConnell said, is a feedlot's proximity to an ethanol plant and as a result, the associated transportation issues. McConnell said those obstacles limit and restrict the use of coproducts in feed because if a coproduct has high moisture content it is heavier and is more likely to spoil. "And the cost of drying those coproducts are pretty high," McConnell said. "You have the high cost of drying the coproduct versus the high cost of transporting it long distances so those are basically the two obstacles that are both faced by ethanol producers as well as cattle feeders."

The researchers said that it appears corn gluten feed has been fed to cattle for a longer period of time and more extensively than some of the other ethanol coproducts. Mathews said one reason could be that until recently there were more wet-mill plants than dry-mill ethanol plants.

"It's really only been since about 2003 that the dry mill plants have increased in significant numbers and part of that's because it's a lot cheaper to build a dry mill plant than it is a wet milling plant. In the past though these wet milling plants were used to produce corn sweeteners, corn syrups and other products which you can't do at a dry mill plant. So I think part of it was the fact that the corn gluten feed was just more available," Mathews said. As well, he added cattle fed high grain rations can suffer from acidosis, a condition in which organic acids build up in the rumen from fermenting the grains and can metabolize in the liver. "One way to get around this is to feed increased forage," Matthews continued. "The corn gluten feed is high in fibers, so that's one way to maintain a level of energy without giving up protein content and increase the fiber content of the ration."

Education will be a key factor in the future use of including ethanol production coproducts in animal feed rations, Mathews said. "I think a lot will depend on where the ethanol industry goes from this point on. If these products continue to be widely available and more increasingly available, cattle producers and livestock feeders will have more opportunities to make use of them and as the industries discover ways to preserve, store, handle and transport these coproducts, they will be more widely used."

The future use of coproducts from ethanol plants will also depend on how the coproducts are marketed and treated by the facilities, McConnell added. "If coproducts are treated more as a coproduct and become an important stream of revenue for the plants, it's going to determine a lot about the consistency and the quality and how much cattle feeders and all livestock feeders are able to utilize them."

Read "Ethanol Co-Product Use in U.S. Cattle Feeding: Lessons Learned and Considerations" for more information.