Distillers Grains Symposium to address feed rations, animal health

By Sarah Smith | April 08, 2008
Web exclusive posted May 12, 2008 at 5:27 p.m. CST

The 12th Distillers Grains Symposium features seminars focusing on the exploding markets for feed rations, and "hot button" animal health issues associated with those markets. Up to 250 ethanol plant managers, merchandisers, regulators, educators and researchers are expected to attend the symposium May 21-22 in Kansas City, Miss., to weigh in on the debate, and to find solutions to the transportation issues currently hampering the industry.

The value of distillers grains is still in its infancy, but the potential is limitless. It's gone from a worthless byproduct that ethanol producers couldn't get rid of fast enough, to a valuable coproduct that producers now can't wait to sell, according to Charlie Staff, executive director of the Distillers Grains Technology Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use, research and information of the ethanol coproducts.

As the Distillers Grains Technology Council prepares for the annual symposium, its customer market is growing as much as the product itself. In 2007, the Distillers Grains Technology Council estimated that 14 million to 16 million metric tons of distillers grains were produced. The Renewable Fuels Association pinpoints the number at 14.6 million tons in 2007. Projections for 2008 aren't completed yet, but it is expected to surpass those figures.

Distillers grains is being marketed to a growing number of livestock and poultry producers who are buying it to feed their cattle, sheep, dairy cows, hogs, horses, chickens and goats. Future value-added markets being considered are food ingredient usage and pet foods. The chameleon-like quality of distillers grains make it challenging to market and Staff hopes the symposium will address the hurdles of selling a product that can vary in protein, fat content, color and consistency. In addition, because the market is heavily dependent on the availability of transportation, especially rail cars and export containers, it is essential to have transportation systems in place so that the product moves and isn't filling up limited plant storage space.

The burgeoning market - and controversy

In the past two years, distillers grains have increased its market share dramatically as a lower-cost feed supplement to livestock producers. During the symposium, Dr. Larry Berger, a beef nutritionist at the University of Illinois, will present his findings of using 40 percent to 50 percent of distillers wet grains in feed rations to beef cattle. He discovered that salt-cured DWG could be preserved much longer than the usual spoil rate of 10 days to 14 days. Berger is a long-time proponent of using ethanol-based feeds to replace energy and protein sources in feedlot diets without sacrificing animal health or performance. But Berger and fellow researchers believe that optimizing the value of distillers grains in diets of growing and finishing cattle will spawn continued expansion of the ethanol industry

Berger and other scientific researchers, including Dr. Joel Spencer at JBS United Inc., have experimented with feed rations for swine, poultry and goats. At the symposium Spencer will present findings showing that a 30 percent ration of distillers grains in pigs will not cause "soft pork" problems when the distillers grains are restricted up to four weeks before sending the pork to markets.

The Distillers Grains Technology Council funded the first study looking at feeding distillers grains to goats since "goats are the fastest growing number of meat animal in the United States right now," Staff said. "There are 4 or 5 million goats in the country so we needed to show how it works successfully in goat rations."

The feed rations experiments come amid a raging national food versus fuel debate over corn-based ethanol. Producers who use corn to feed cattle, hogs and chickens are being squeezed by the 30-year high prices. On April 28, Tyson Foods reported its first loss in six quarters, indicating that its corn and soybean costs would increase by $600 million this year. These skyrocketing prices are forcing livestock producers to seek alternative ways to keep their herds and flocks consuming protein-rich feeds. Producers, veterinarians and researchers are waging their own debate as to how much distillers grains various animals can digest - while still providing a cost effective feed. Staff said distillers dried grains, depending on transportation costs, are running between $165 a ton to $220 a ton. Rick Kment, a biofuels analyst for DTN, said modified wet distillers grain prices are running $65 a ton to $80 a ton. For the past ten years, the price of distillers grains has followed the price of corn because it has been found by animal feeders to be a good nutritional replacement for corn.

Even though cows, which have four stomachs, can digest distillers grains more easily than other animals, Staff said most dairy producers usually are required to supplement those rations with starch additives, like corn, to maintain milk production. "We would like to get more distillers in these rations," Staff said. "It can be done with proper formulation."

The controversy of whether use of dried distillers grains result in the increase of bacterium E. coli in feedlot cattle will be front and center at the symposium. A 2007 study at Kansas State University found that cattle fed distillers grains have an increased prevalence of the deadly pathogen E. coli 0157 in their hindgut. This particular type of E. coli can be present in healthy cattle but poses a health risk to humans, who can acquire it through undercooked meat, raw dairy products and produce contaminated with cattle manure.

The research findings caused public concern and calls for cattle producers to stop supplementing their feed rations with distillers grains. Richard Raymond, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, was quoted earlier this year questioning whether distillers grains were one of several factors behind the nationwide increase in beef recalls. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has proposed regulations for ethanol derived coproducts in animal feeds, stating "it has been determined that some of the ingredients used in the ethanol manufacturing process have not been assessed for safety and require approval." Some have even weighed in, urging biofuels producers, cattle producers and beef processors to use caution in marketing and selling cattle fed with distillers grains as a safe alternative.

Terry Klopfenstein, an animal science professor at the University of Kansas-Lincoln, and his research team have questioned the consistent prevalence of E.coli strains in cattle fed distillers grains. The Kansas State University study used a 25 percent concentration of distillers grains in feed rations and concluded that these higher rations doubled the prevalence of E. coli. The University of Kansas-Lincoln used levels of 10 percent to 30 percent of distillers grains, and determined that those levels actually protected against the bacterium, but that higher levels did show an increased propensity to potentially cause tainted beef. The culprit is still not known but speculation is that cattle fed corn based diets may have lower pH levels in their stomachs which prevent E. coli from growing because the acid content in a cow's stomach kills these bacteria.

Klopfenstein and his researchers said the association between distillers grains and E. coli could not consistently be linked because they had been feeding cattle the coproducts for a decade without seeing increases in the pathogen's prevalence in all their feeding studies. In addition, other grains commonly used in cattle diets have occasionally been found to cause E. coli. Klopfenstein will be the first presenter at the Symposium. Staff says the conflicting studies are widely anticipated to further the debate, the dialog, and further research.

The Distillers Grains Technology Council is awarding seven graduate students at six different universities scholarships to continue their distillers grains research. The students have been invited to present their studies and discuss them with symposium attendees.

Transportation and Quality Issues

Transportation "is becoming a major, major issue with the rapidly expanding growth of distillers grains because all railroad rates have gone up tremendously," Staff said. "They've doubled in the last three years." The railcar shortage has been caused by the slow pace of more being built. Available transportation and cost determines market availability, he maintains. Railroads are the preferred mode of transportation, although some distillers grains are transported by truck, depending on rail availability and proximity to a market. Wet distillers grains are transported by truck and the price of diesel fuel has greatly increased these transportation costs. DWG are only 20 percent to 25 percent of the grains produced, according to the RFA. Transportation, or the lack of it, may determine if an ethanol plant expends the extra money to fractionate the grain before processing it, to improve its composition.

At least three seminars will address quality control and regulatory issues. Since 1964 the Association of American Feed Control Officials has developed and implemented standards for the manufacture and ingredient definitions of animal feeds, including distillers grains. AAFCO releases its "Official Publication" annually which keeps the standards updated each year. At the symposium a representative of AAFCO will have a presentation on what can and cannot be called distillers grains. The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (USDA/GIPSA) proposed developing standards for distillers grains, along with standardized testing methods. However, many industry groups indicated these were not necessary and could actually add to the confusion in the marketplace. A GIPSA representative will present at the symposium and discuss the results of the proposed comments, as well as if there is any further action being planned.

Another presentation will address the mega-plants that have been built throughout the United States. Staff said that discussion will look at current quality control methods used by the larger ethanol plants.

For more information on the symposium, visit http://guest.cvent.com or the Distillers Grains Technology Council Web site, http://www.distillersgrains.org/.