Feeders explore implications of low-fat distillers grains

By Kris Bevill | January 10, 2012

The cost to remove corn oil from distillers grains (DGs) is high, but even so, an increasing number of ethanol producers are expected to begin extracting the valuable product from DGs in the coming year as they seek out additional revenue sources from the ethanol production process. As a result, more of the DGs sold to livestock, swine and poultry feeders will have reduced levels of fat, a consequence that could be good or bad for animal producers, depending on the animal type.

Grant Crawford, a University of Minnesota beef extension educator, said some livestock producers could benefit from DGs with reduced oil/fat content. “In some cases, the fat content has limited the use of distillers grains, especially in feedlot rations, because we have a threshold of how much fat we can feed to cattle in feedlots before we start reducing animal performance,” he said. “Reducing the fat might be a positive thing and could allow us to feed higher levels. The downside of that is fat contains 2.25 times as much energy per gram than protein or carbohydrates, so we’re losing energy content potentially, but we’re also gaining the ability to feed greater amounts.” If the fat content of DGs remains between 8 and 10 percent (traditional DGs contain between 10 and 12 percent fat), Crawford said the product could continue to be a valuable feedstuff for livestock producers, allowing them to use greater amounts without requiring supplemental high-fat feeds.

For swine and poultry producers, the lost energy content is a greater issue, particularly because producers aren’t as able to economically replace the loss of dietary energy experienced when using low-fat DGs. Rob Musser, director of technical sales and marketing for Iowa-based NutriQuest, which currently monitors the nutritional specifications of feed products produced at 140 ethanol plants for customers in the swine and poultry industries, said that while DGs typically sell at a reduced price compared to corn, swine producers using low-fat DGs will either need to allow more time for their animals to grow, or supplement the feed diet with more expensive, high-energy alternatives, such as choice white grease, beef tallow or even corn oil. As a result, the economic advantage of using DGs compared to corn is then reduced, Musser said. “Its nutritional value is less, so the end result is if you try to adjust with other energy-containing ingredients, your ration costs will go up,” he said.

As low-fat DGs begin to become more commonplace on the market, both Musser and Crawford noted the need for transparency on the part of ethanol producers as to the content of their products in addition to continued research to verify the nutritional implications for animals. Musser said he believes some ethanol producers don’t fully understand the importance of those changes in the feed product. “The more detail they can provide the better,” Musser said. “At least provide updated numbers on the oil content guarantee and current levels.”

“I think most of the ethanol producers are fairly transparent and we have nutritionists that are out sampling at the feedlots all the time, so they’ll notice if there are changes,” Crawford said. He expects increased competition for DGs sales as a side-effect of the recent Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit expiration and said producers who are not upfront about the content of their DGs may quickly lose customers, so quality control and customer service may become a greater focus for ethanol producers. “But that would be a great thing, if we could have a product that is more consistent, more consistently available and that producers can count on being the product they’re expecting to get.”