Proposed RFS reduction threatens a vital animal feed: Distillers Grains

Dried distillers grains are a by-product of the ethanol process and a protein-packed feed source for livestock and poultry.

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

With a bushel of corn — 56 pounds — an ethanol plant produces 2.8 gallons of cleaner burning fuel and 17 pounds of high quality animal feed.

With cuts looming to the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) – legislation that sets targets for the amount of corn ethanol blended with regular gasoline — farmers who feed DDGS rations to livestock are worried about this great source of protein and energy drying up.

“Distillers Grains work very well in the ration,” said Dan Erickson, who farms in Alden, Minn. and raises 400 head of dairy heifers. “We’ve been using a lot of it. A lot of things depend on having a plentiful supply of distillers grains. It’s been a cheaper source of protein than soybean meal. I’m not anti-soybean meal, it’s just that distillers grains have been more economical and have really carried us through periods where beans and corn have been higher priced.”

Because the starch has been removed to produce ethanol and only protein, oil and fiber remain, Distillers grains actually concentrate the nutritional value found in corn and soybeans. A ton of distillers grain is equivalent to 1.22 tons of corn. Livestock farmers like Erickson, along with pork and poultry producers, have incorporated distillers grains as an important element in offering the high quality meat products American consumers want.

Erickson would have to move to a combination of corn and soybean meal to replace the concentrated feed value of distillers grains, which contain not only protein equivalent to that found in soybean meal, but the oil found in corn — a vital source of energy for the cattle, hogs, turkeys and chickens produced by American farmers.

At the height of current capacity, ethanol plants can produce 40 million tons of distillers grains a year, equivalent to the entire U.S. production of soybean meal, according to Charlie Staff, the executive director and CEO of the Distillers Grains Technology Council.

EPA has proposed dropping ethanol targets in the RFS for 2014 by more than 1 billion gallons. This could result in a long term reduction in this important feed ingredient.

“The real worry is that, without the planned increases in the use of ethanol, the cellulosic ethanol coming on the market will displace grain ethanol rather than gasoline,” said Bob Wisner, a biofuels economist at the Ag Marketing Resource Center, Iowa State University. “If that happens, it could eventually limit or decrease the availability of distillers grains in the marketplace.”

Beef feedlots close to ethanol plants feed wet distillers grains. It can be up to half of the feed ration, Wisner notes. Pork producers utilize up to 30 percent dried distillers grains in their feed rations. Poultry producers depend on distillers for a small but significant five to 10 percent of their feed rations.

Dried distillers grains travel well, and so China has become a major consumer of the feed ingredient as demand for animal protein continues to rise. In the first seven months of 2013, China bought 1.35 million metric tons, up from a million tons purchased in all of 2011.

Wisner believes demand from China will only continue to rise, further reducing the availability of distillers grains to domestic livestock producers.

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