The Future of Distillers Grains

By : Cody Schneider, Ph.D., Cargill Animal Nutrition,


In many parts of life, we adapt easily to constant change. Think of your smart phone… how many of us accept frequent software updates without thinking twice about them? With one tap and a few minutes of installation time, we’ve got the latest and greatest technology at our fingertips. Change in the feed industry is not as easy to implement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. The evolution of distillers grains in the last 15 years is a prime example.

With the rise of ethanol production in the late 2000’s, distillers grains changed the way cattle feeders looked at protein. It was a paradigm shift; we went from a period when protein was the most expensive ingredient in rations to a new era in which distillers and other by-products enabled us to use protein as an affordable energy source. Wet by-products improved ration mixability and palatability and many feeders reaped gain efficiencies along the way. There’s no denying that the rise in popularity of distillers grains took the cattle feeding industry by storm, but where do we go from here?

Because of the direct correlation between the ethanol and cattle feeding industries, as ethanol production evolves, so must we. To stay ahead of the change curve as we consider the future of distillers grains, I recommend three strategies – 1) know what’s happening, 2) understand the impact on your operation, and 3) adapt accordingly.

Know what’s happening

We can speak of change vaguely, but that doesn’t do much good for your business planning process. So what exactly is changing in the distillers grain category? “Bolt on” technologies are what I’m observing most often. By that, I mean new processes that are designed to be added to existing ethanol production facilities.

Fiber separation is one example of this in which fiber from a corn kernel is being removed prior to fermentation, increasing efficiency of the fermentation process and improving ethanol yields. Fiber separation is easy enough to understand, but the complexity comes after the fiber is removed; what’s done next with that fiber is highly variable. Some plants will combine the fiber back with the rest of their spent grains; others are selling the spent grains as high protein distillers; and others are combining the fiber with condensed distillers solubles, selling a fiber plus syrup product. A small percentage of plants will even use that fiber fraction to produce cellulosic ethanol. Each of these products has a different value to your feeding program and none can be viewed as one in the same.

Post-fermentation fractionation is another up-and-coming trend in ethanol production in which manufacturers are exploring new ways of extracting value from existing ethanol by separating distillers yeast from stillage. This yeast portion is a very high quality protein source and energetically, is one of the most valuable components found in distillers grains today. Products with this yeast fraction removed can be expected to have different nutritional values; there will be variability from plant to plant in the end product you’re being offered, so you need to know exactly what you’re being offered and what it brings to the cattle feeding table.

These are just a few examples of emerging trends in distillers grain production, but I am confident there is more to come. As an industry, we were somewhat caught off-guard when fat removal was introduced in ethanol production a few years ago. Let us all learn from that experience by staying informed about what technologies are emerging and what that means for cattle feeding. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your nutritionist, your feed manufacturers, and other industry experts to make the most informed decisions possible for management of your operation and nutritional program.

Understand the impact on your operation

At the risk of sounding repetitive, I cannot stress enough how important it is to understand the variability from plant to plant in ethanol production. As each ethanol producer employs new technologies in their production processes, there will be differences ranging from slight to extreme in the products they are offering as an output.

Before introducing a new distillers product to your feeding program, you must understand exactly what the product is and how it differs from and/or interacts with the ingredients you’re currently using. As some things are removed from distillers (i.e., fiber), you can expect the concentration of other things (i.e., protein) to increase. How does that impact the ration as a whole?

When distillers grains first gained popularity, we talked a lot about the risks of sulfur toxicity. Over time, with more consistent production and broad understanding of sulfur limits in diets, the industry has collectively managed this concern. As new distillers products emerge, we cannot become complacent to previously identified issues. I, personally, will be looking closely at the impact of some of these new products on sulfur levels and formulating diets accordingly rather than blindly including them in a ration before understanding intended and unintended consequences of doing so.

Viewing your nutrition program holistically is not only a good management practice, but it’s smart business. With little room for error in cattle production, analyzing the impact of a new technology on your cattle’s health and well-being; their productivity and efficiency; and your economic viability does not mean you’re being over-critical. Conversely, it means you have good business sense.

If you’re not equipped to fully analyze the situation or product at hand, engage the experts around you. Seek the help of nutrition consultants who have access to state-of-the-art labs and models to help predict how an ingredient change will impact your operation specifically. There is an abundance of information and resources available to support you, so uninformed decision making is no real excuse if things go awry.

Adapt accordingly

While changes in cattle nutrition may never be as simple as the tap of a button, I believe adaptation is critical to the  sustainability of our industry. As with every other industry in today’s day and age, the ethanol industry is going to continue to evolve in the quest for efficiency and additional value.

We’ve experienced this before and should not be blindsided by this evolution. Instead, we should stay informed about the changes occurring and how they relate to cattle feeding and production. Make an informed decision with your specific business in mind and tweak your program along the way with the goal of continuous improvement always top-of-mind.

If you’ve ever skipped out on multiple phone updates, you’ve likely experienced the frustration of glitches and slow functionality. How might your cattle operation be negatively impacted if you don’t at least consider the new technologies being made available?

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