The Role of DDGS in the Food-Versus-Fuel Debate

As mainstream media continues its tirade against biofuels in the food-versus-fuel debate, many aren't aware of or ignore distillers grains and how it fits into the picture.
By Ron Kotrba | July 08, 2008
Standing inside the distillers grains building of an ethanol plant as tons of coproduct pile up, it's difficult to comprehend how the mainstream media could overlook such an important and large part of the food-versus-fuel debate. To many people, the notion of pitting food against fuel is only that—a debate. "Everyone is in agreement that there's a food-versus-fuel debate," says John Caupert, director of the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center. "However, I am firmly convinced there is not a food-versus-fuel issue. A debate is one thing but whether there's an issue—that's something else."

Dan Keefe, manager of international operations for the U.S. Grains Council, tells EPM he can't recall ever reading an article on the topic of food versus fuel in which it is stated that for every 100 tons of corn used for ethanol production there are 33 tons of quality, high-protein animal feed sold back to livestock producers. "It's been grossly understated in the general media," Keefe says. According to him, the world will never be satisfied with American agricultural policy.

"The reality is, historically, the United Nations has blamed the U.S. for artificially keeping crop prices too low so [world] farmers could not afford to grow [their own crops]," Keefe asserts. "Now that prices are high, they blame us for using up all the food for fuel. Apparently in some of these other countries with these high prices they still can't figure out how to grow something—or their governments won't let them. So what's the answer? Being dependent entirely on foreign oil and having low crop prices so Argentina and countries in Africa can complain about the low prices again? I don't know, but I don't think there's anything we can do to make the world perfectly happy."

There is no question that the rise of U.S. corn-ethanol production has brought about unprecedented changes in agriculture, domestically and internationally. But the fact is, despite the growing demand on corn from ethanol producers, American corn farmers are meeting the needs of their domestic and international customers. The USDA's World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates says this year the United States is exporting 69 million metric tons (76 million tons) of corn—the most recorded in history—up from about 58 million metric tons (64 million tons) last year. Information from the USDA states that the current breakdown of U.S. corn allocation goes like this: 47 percent is purchased by U.S. livestock producers for feed; 24 percent is bought by ethanol producers to make fuel; 19 percent is bound for export markets; and 10 percent for other uses such as corn oil, starch, plastics, etc. The 24 percent of the U.S. corn crop going to ethanol production will result in 24 million metric tons (26 million tons) of distillers grains, which the mainstream media seems to ignore.

It would behoove the mainstream media to learn that approximately only one-third of the corn coming into an ethanol plant, the starch, actually becomes ethanol, while another third becomes carbon dioxide and the remaining third is sold back to the livestock industry as protein rich distillers grains.

"Part of the problem is distillers grains is an untold story," said Charlie Staff, executive director and chief executive officer of the Distillers Grains Technology Council, at the organization's 2008 symposium in Kansas City, Mo. "Ethanol and distillers grains are hooked to the hip together, so if ethanol is taking a hit then we too are taking a hit. Critics say that the United States has started something that's immoral—taking food and making ethanol. It's emotional. We don't like to see starving people, and governments are upset too. All of us have compassion about famine." But as heavily populated countries like China and India continue to modernize, an increasing demand for meat, and grains like corn to feed finishing beef cattle, swine and poultry, will remain a constant in this ever-developing world. As the saying goes, more money, more problems.

Boosting Distillers Grains' Feeding Efficiency
Clearly as resources around the globe become scarcer, or as with U.S. corn's case more abundant yet significantly higher priced than before, there is greater need to use those resources more efficiently. One of the biggest drawbacks of distillers grains, according to some, is the lack of uniform product standards and consistency, which inevitably leads to use of the product in a manner that is not as efficient as it could be. "Because margins are so tight in the livestock industry, the nutritionists need to be very precise in their formulation," says Troy Lorhman, vice president of Quality Technology International, a global grain and coproducts marketing company. QTI is also part of a joint-venture limited-liability company, Corn Value Products, which is promoting its fractionation technology called Hydromilling. "So if livestock producers have an ingredient they're using a lot of in the ration, but are not sure of the nutrient composition of that ingredient, they have to put safety or discount factors on the nutrient composition." What this means is the feeders underestimate the actual nutritional value. "They only do that to be safe, so when they discount the nutrient analysis, that means they have to pay less for it because they are consuming less nutrients," Lorhman tells EPM. "So when they can be assured of a product's nutrient analysis, they'll give it a higher valuation in their formula and then in turn they can pay more compared with other ingredients." Keefe says it's important that livestock producers know what the protein, fat and fiber content of distillers grains is, so they can put a full value on it in their least-cost formulation.

At the 2008 DGTC symposium, Larry Berger, a University of Illinois professor, was asked after his presentation how much distillers grains could be incorporated into cattle diets if sulfur levels and the resulting potential of polio weren't concerns. Berger's response was that while protein at levels that are too high might be a problem, 60 percent to 70 percent inclusion rates could be possible if it weren't for sulfur. "Some feedlots are doing that now with additional management," Berger said. At the same event a research scientist with JBS United Inc., Joel Spencer, said with the high grain prices today the swine industry is in "survival mode." He made mention of various limitations swine producers find in distillers grains utility in hog rations, including high iodine and phosphorus levels, which are of concern especially for grow/finish operations; mycotoxin sensitivity of young pigs; depressed litter size for sows, meaning that, while the savings of approximately $11 a ton per year in sow rations appears beneficial to large swine producers, a reduction of one pig per litter overshadows any rations savings gained over the course of a year; and amino acid variability from plant to plant—especially lysine. Spencer told the swine producers in attendance, if they desire to incorporate DDGS into pig rations, to make sure to purchase the coproduct from only one or two plants. "Know your plant because lysine content varies tremendously," Spencer said, recommending ethanol producers step up quality assurance and real-time reporting of the amino acid profiles in their coproduct streams. If ethanol plants could offer real-time daily or even weekly amino acid reporting on its coproducts, the value of that service would be worth approximately $3 a ton to the ethanol plant.

Moreover, it would optimize the feed efficiency of distillers grains to contribute even more to the global agricultural community, and help satisfy food and fuel requirements domestically and abroad.

Keefe says it's unfair to single out distillers grains and the lack of amino acids reporting from ethanol producers, because feeders don't get that kind of information from other feed mills. "It's just not that common," he says. "To say DDGS is a bad product because of the variability and because you don't give me the digestible lysine content just isn't consistent with what's going on in the industry, whether it's with corn, soybean meal or whatever. You don't get that kind of data from other sources, so why it has to be applied to distillers grains I just don't get."

DDGS' Role in the Debate Aided by NCERC
Research being conducted on distillers grains at NCERC is helping to relieve pressure on mounting feed costs for livestock producers. "We have two projects that are directly contributing to that," Caupert tells EPM. One is NCERC's national distillers grains library, and the other is a coproducts' nutrient composition project. While the two projects sound similar, they are not.

The national distillers grains library project has been underway for about a year now, and it is a physical library of samples obtained on a quarterly basis from "every dry-grind ethanol plant we can get to participate in the project," Caupert says. Roughly 30 percent of all U.S. dry-mill ethanol plants are involved. "It's a good cross-section and representation of what's out there," he says. The information is kept private and is used by NCERC as leverage for competitive grants. "To our knowledge that database is the single-most comprehensive one of its kind in the world," Caupert says.

NCERC's other project, which is similar in nature, is completely public and is not exclusive to dry-grind ethanol plant coproducts, but rather the center solicits coproduct samples—including corn gluten feed, corn gluten meal, distillers grains, wet gluten, corn kernel fiber, corn bran, etc.—from every corn processor in Illinois, western Indiana, southern Wisconsin and eastern Iowa. The national library project collects samples quarterly while the other project collects samples on a monthly basis. "In this project we run moisture, protein, fiber and fat analyses, and to do that we use the methods recommended by the American Feed Industry Association," Caupert says. The results are forwarded to the Illinois Rural Affairs Institute and the information is on a Web site ( "You might be a swine feeder in southern Illinois or a poultry feeder in Indonesia, but you'll be able to log onto this Web site and find various products and their compositions, and over time you can see each individual plant and corresponding analyses," he says.

The good news coming out of the national distillers grains library is the consistency seen in distillers grains samples. "While we see some variation across the industry—we see protein levels that maybe range from 25 percent to 32 percent—within a particular plant we don't see the variation and inconsistency that some are claiming is there," Caupert tells EPM. "From a plant located in Iowa to one in Arizona, you may see some differences in moisture and protein, but within a single plant it's been pretty doggone consistent—at least the variation wouldn't be statistically significant—and that's really encouraging."

While the mainstream media neglects to report that one-third of the corn used in ethanol production is returned back to the livestock community as high-protein feed, it is fair to wonder if the ethanol industry places too much value on the role distillers grains plays in the mix. Caupert doesn't think so. "If anything I think it's the polar opposite," he says. "As an industry, I think distillers grains marketers and ethanol producers undervalue its role, and here's why. We take corn, it comes into an ethanol plant at between 8 percent and 10 percent protein, and at the back of the plant it's coming out at 26 percent to 30 percent protein. Whenever we put a pound of distillers grains in feeding rations for cattle, swine or poultry, we're not only replacing a certain portion of the energy of the diet, which would probably come from corn, but we're also replacing a high percentage of their protein in that ration—be it soybean meal or something else. So I actually think we're undervaluing our products, but with the information we are gathering at NCERC I think the situation is getting much better."

Ron Kotrba is an Ethanol Producer Magazine senior writer. Reach him at or (701) 738-4962.