Feeding distillers grains to beef cattle

Quick facts

  • Distillers grains have 25 to 35 percent protein dry matter content.
  • Always check and adjust sulfur content in the diet to avoid poor performance.
  • Be prepared to store distillers grains, wet distillers grains need more complex storage.
  • Wet and dry distiller’s grains have about 110 and 95 percent the energy value of corn grain, respectively
  • Make sure the diet calcium to phosphorus ratio doesn’t fall below 2 to 1.

Distillers grains supply rises with ethanol production in the Midwest. Producers that use distillers grains in beef cattle diets must understand and manage the following;

  • Changes in nutrient content of distillers grains
  • Storage and handling issues
  • Formulating diets

Nutrient content

Starch content of distillers grains is lower than corn grain. But fiber and protein content is higher in distillers grains than corn grain. Many distillers grains samples test between 25 and 35 percent protein.

Dry matter of wet distiller grains (WDG) differs from 25 to 35 percent between plants. Some plants produce a modified WDG (45 to 50 percent dry matter). Distillers grains are energy and protein sources for stock cows, and growing and finishing cattle.

Producers that use distillers grains must be aware of the following:

  • Changes in nutrient content
  • Possible high element content such as phosphorus and sulfur

Changes in protein or moisture content lead to undesired changes in protein or dry matter content of diets.

Sulfur and phosphorus

Distillers grains from some Minnesota and South Dakota averaged 0.89 percent in phosphorus and 0.47 percent in sulfur. Changes in content ranged from 0.68 to 1.09 percent (phosphorus) and 0.12 to 0.82 percent (sulfur).

Growing cattle need 0.15 percent of diet dry matter in sulfur daily. Don’t provide more than 0.40
percent sulfur in the diet. Always consider the sulfur amounts in all diet contents including:

  • All feedstuffs (corn grain, forage)
  • Supplements (sulfate-based mineral supplement)
  • Water sulfate content

This will prevent you from providing more sulfur than the cattle need and harming their health.

Too much sulfur in the diet or water can reduce uptake of copper or lead to polioencephalomalacia. If your water has less than 1,500 parts per million of sulfate, this may be less of a concern. But water in the west has ranged from 3,000 to 10,000 parts per million of sulfate.

Thus, producers need to sample distillers grains before buying them. Plan to adjust cattle diets and care to prevent harming performance. Take samples routinely or when the source or quality of distillers grains changes.

Including distillers grains in diets

Wet and dry distillers grains have about 110 and 95 percent the energy value of corn grain, respectively.

  • Provide 15 to 25 percent of diet dry matter as WDG in feedlot diets for better gain and feed efficiency.
  • Feed no more than 15 percent of diet dry matter as dry distiller grains.

Use rumen-degradable true protein sources (soybean meal, canola, etc.) over urea (no more than 0.5 percent of diet dry matter).

Distillers grains are a good source of energy and protein for beef cow, replacement heifer or calf diets that need supplementing. But distillers grains are high in phosphorus and rumen-undegradable protein. Thus make sure the diet calcium to phosphorus ratio doesn’t fall below 2 to 1. Also provide enough degradable protein for good forage use.

Storing and handling distillers grains

Ethanol plants, brokers and local feed elevators provide most dry-milling co-products in amounts for feedlots. If you want wet co-products, purchasing limits may apply. For example, plants require that you purchase WDG in semi loads.

Smaller operations may need to group together to purchase a semi load every two weeks or less. Smaller operations could purchase singly and prepare to preserve a semi load less often.

Wet co-products need more complex storage because spoiling can cause great loss. Usually, WDG have a shelf-life of fewer than 5 days. Ensiling wet co-products helps preserve them. But you must make sure silo structure or bag costs don’t offset the benefits of co-products.

Researchers recommend mixing 70 percent WDGS and 30 percent soybean hulls when filling bags or silos. Silage wedges made within walls of large bales may reduce the cost, but make sure you pack the wedge firmly. You can store WDG by spreading two 50-pound bags of livestock salt on top of the wedge left behind by the semi-trailer.

Alfredo DiCostanzo, Extension animal scientist

Reviewed in 2018

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