According to research by Dr. Jim MacDonald, a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researcher, there is no reason the cattle-feeding industry there cannot remain strong and viable if it incorporates distiller's grains into rations. Distiller's grains are the residue of corn that is processed into ethanol.
The Experiment Station beef cattle nutritionist says "our concern has been 'Will there be enough feed?' Assuming all the distiller's grains are available for livestock feed, clearly there will be."
But, MacDonald says, the ratio of corn being fed versus distiller's grains could go from 11-to-1 today to 3-to-1 nationally in the next 10 years. So it will become important to find the most optimal ways to feed distiller's grains in such large quantities. Several researchers are working on this (and some projections show this could even make meat less costly in the future; on other applications of biofuel byproducts, see here).
Relatively few distiller's grains are fed in the Southern Plains states now. Some beef producers are reluctant because there's no incentive and no ready supply. However, with the opening of two ethanol plants scheduled later this year in the Panhandle, a steady supply of distiller's grains should be available, making the alternative feedstock more attractive:
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"In the future, as long as it is priced relative to corn, I think there will be a necessity to use this new large pool of feed," MacDonald said. The proportion of corn used from 2002 to 2006 hasn't changed much in the areas of human consumption, high fructose production or exports, he said.
The biggest change has been corn moving from the livestock-feed sector to the fuel-ethanol sector, MacDonald said. Livestock feed has decreased from 60 percent to 55 percent in that time period, while the ethanol fuel sector increased from 8 percent to 14 percent.
However, National Corn Growers Association forecasts show that while the percentage has decreased, the actual bushels of corn produced will continue to increase due to higher yields and acres planted, he said.
The acres of corn harvest is expected to rise from the current 71 million to 80-85 million over the next five years, MacDonald said. Yields are projected to rise from about 150 bushels per acre to almost 180 bushels per acre in the next 10 years.
"We're not sure how big the ethanol industry is going to get, but if every plant being proposed as of now gets built, the Renewable Fuels Association says we'll be producing 12.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year from starch," he said.
In estimating feed availability for livestock, MacDonald assumed as much as 15 billion gallons of ethanol being produced annually. At that rate, 35.5 percent of all corn would be needed for ethanol. This would bring the amount of corn available for feed down from the current 60 percent to 33.5 percent, assuming the other categories remain steady.
Because yields are expected to increase, he said the decrease of actual corn fed will not be as dramatic, going from 6.1 billion bushels in 2006 to 5 billion bushels by 2017.
The beef and dairy industries are in the best position of any of the livestock industry to use distiller's grains, MacDonald said.
Based on the number of plants proposed in the Texas High Plains, he estimated feed yards will need to include 15 percent to 20 percent of distiller's grains in the diet (moisture-free basis) to use all the available supply.
The two Hereford plants, with a combined 200 million gallons of ethanol production per year, will produce 665,000 tons of distiller's grains, he said. This quantity alone would be enough to include 6 percent to 7 percent distiller's grains in the diets of the 5.75 million head of cattle fed in the Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma region.
If a proportion higher than 20 percent were included into area feed yard and dairy rations, distiller's grains will need to be railed in from the Midwest, he said.
Growth of the ethanol industry in the Corn Belt has created a greater demand for corn in that area, MacDonald said. However, they now have a large surplus distiller's grains. That could make them cheaper to rail into Texas than whole corn.
"The only thing that keeps this all in balance is our ability to utilize the distiller's grains," MacDonald said. "We still have to go through the learning curve of how to feed them."
In the tri-state area, distiller's grains would be mixed with steam-flaked corn. This is different from in the Midwest, where dry-rolled corn is fed, he said.
Several studies are under way to see how to maximize the use of distiller's grains in the feed yard situation, MacDonald said. Those results should be available later this summer.
Picture: Tons of distiller’s dried grains being held in storage at a Midwest ethanol plant. Credit: Agricultural Research Service.
Eurekalert: Researcher: Feeding distiller's grains vital to future of livestock operation success - July 6, 2007.