Beef cattle

In western Kansas, beef cattle are an important part of the economic puzzle. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

Dry distillers grains have been hard to come by as ethanol plants slow production due to coronavirus. Many cattle producers are trying to identify alternative ingredients for their feed rations to replace this co-product they’ve come to rely on.

During a May 14 webinar, Kansas State University’s Jaymelynn Farney, associate professor and Extension specialist, along with Justin Waggoner, beef systems specialist at Southwest Area Extension Office in Garden City, Kansas, helped address nutrition and management considerations that may be implemented by producers growing cattle in these challenging times.

Farney said she’s in the same boat as many beef producers as she’s looking for distiller’s grains to finish up some of her research studies. Distiller’s commodities are in short supply as some ethanol plants have shuttered production.

“Us in the research sector, we're at the same limitations and issues as you guys out in production,” she said. “I've been tracking down distillers for three weeks to finish some research projects.

It’s really a matter of supply and demand for distiller’s grains.

“Our demand is still high and supplies down, so if you have access to distiller's your prices have probably been increasing,” Farney said.

She suggested a variety of potential protein sources, but the thing she likes about distiller’s grains is it’s traditionally lower in protein, and lower cost when added to rations, while still offering a higher amount of energy.

“So it's kind of a dual purpose type scene,” she said.

For those wanting to replace it in rations from a protein perspective, there’s a number of other commodities that are more economically feasible, depending on where the producer is located.

Farney said for crude protein options to add to rations instead of distillers, one can consider whole soybeans, wheat mids, and sunflower millings, among other things, but remember what specifics each ingredient offers particularly for protein per pound.

“That's something you really need to think about as you're working on balancing your rations as well as pricing,” she said.

So what happens if you replace a pound of dry matter of protein from distiller’s grains with something else? It has to be replaced proportionally. The replacement also should be found easily, in order to make it worthwhile. One example, extruded soybean meal has been utilized more extensively in swine production than beef, but it can be a suitable substitute.

“It offers a similar amount of protein, as your soybean meal, but you get a little extra fat,” Farney said. “That's one of the things that we really liked about the distillers—that little extra fat can provide some extra energy.”

Sunflower meal is another ingredient that those formulating rations don’t really think about on a regular basis. From a protein perspective, it really depends on the amount of hulling the sunflower undergoes.

“The ones that have been completely dehulled, have a very high protein feed source,” Farney said. “Now, of course, you will be making your decisions about which protein sources based off of your discussions with your nutritionist.”

But cattle producers need to evaluate what commodities are available in the area, and the cost per pound of what will be used, as well as if its for protein or energy on a dry matter basis.

“Make sure when you're visiting and look at some of these, especially like whole soybeans, they're very high fat,” Farney said. “We need to make sure inclusion levels are appropriate.”

Remember palatability too, she said. Livestock have to eat it to get any benefit from it.

“One of the things we really liked about our distillers feeds, is the appetite enhancer,” Farney said. “The palatability component of it—a lot of producers I visit with switched over to corn gluten feed and they just don't eat it as well as they like the distillers.”

And of course balancing the metabolizeable protein system may be a way to help reduce cost, according to Farney.

Other sources

Waggoner said one of the most common sources of protein a producer can find readily available, even though there’s some regional variation is alfalfa.

“I would consider it to be a very traditional protein source in a grower ration really in the current situation that the biggest advantage I felt that it had was that it was readily accessible,” he said.

Pricing is relative to the area, but for Waggoner in western Kansas, old crop alfalfa is in the range of $180 to $230 per ton. Even though alfalfa as forage is good, it doesn’t come without challenges.

“It is relatively consistent compared to other forges, but it is still quite variable,” he said.

If the crude protein content is specifically evaluated, the low end could be around 14%, going all the way up to 25% on the high side. So there is some variability.

There could be issues with availability of alfalfa because of ongoing drought conditions in the southwest part of Kansas.

“Drought tends to impact the prices of (alfalfa qualities)” he said. “I fully expect if that situation continues we may see some increases in the price of alfalfa.”

When looking to substitute distiller’s grains, one of the challenges, like Farney mentioned, is palatability and intake benefits. Alfalfa will dry up the ration some, Waggoner said.

“The other fact with alfalfa is it's not necessarily going to be a one-for-one substitution,” he said. “We have to take into account the energy factors.”

With the energy value of distiller’s grain products relative to alfalfa, it’s difficult to meet 100% of the protein needs without some degree of energy dilution in the ration.

Urea was another area Waggoner and Farney felt needed to be addressed. Non-protein nitrogen use in cattle rations with urea is, by and large, the most common source of non-protein nitrogen.

“We're looking at a product that contains 42% to 45% nitrogen. That puts it somewhere in the neighborhood of 262% to 281% crude protein,” Waggoner said. “If we look at it from a cost standpoint, most market values in Kansas we're looking at 30 to 40 cents per pound.”

If it’s priced back on a crude protein basis, it’s more like a dollar per pound of crude protein. Which, in some instances, could be below some of the other commodities.

“That's typically the case, a lot of times with urea. It is linked to the fertilizer market,” Waggoner said.

He couldn’t have the discussion about urea without mentioning urea toxicity.

“Urea is rapidly converted to ammonia in the rumen, and so it's something that we need to be careful with and always have some caution in terms of how we utilize that product,” Waggoner said. It is well utilized by cow consuming grain-based diets. We have to have sufficient energy in the ration to incorporate it as nitrogen source into microbial protein.”

The scenario is a little different when using urea as a supplement in a forage-based situation with a set of cows. Although the urea is helpful, it’s not a true protein in the diet, Waggoner said. When looking at inclusion levels, opinions vary. But in a typical scenario, inclusion levels for urea range between 0.5% and 1% of the total diet on a dry matter basis.

“That would be fairly common in in growing rations. We typically like to see a lower inclusion level on what I call lightweight cattle, being in that 0.5% range maybe less in some scenarios,” he said. “I know there are some nutritionists that may, in some cases, avoid urea use at all in some starter rations. And just simply that we do try to limit that use in those lightweight cattle.”

Waggoner believes urea should be included in a ration via a premix, whether it be a dry premix or a liquid supplement of some sort. This is done to facilitate mixing. Urea is not something that should be top-dressed in a ration.

Waggoner said he’s had a fair bit of interest from producers utilizing raw, whole soybeans in rations. They are approximately 40% crude protein and 20% fat. Some producers already had the product on the farm.

“The inclusion is going to be limited by that high fat content,” Waggoner said. “It's going to reduce the digestibility especially in forage digestibility if we exceed some target levels.”

Maximum inclusion levels of raw soybeans are around 10 to 15% of the diet on a dry matter basis.

“If we look at fat targets in the total diet, a lot of times in a growing ration we are really a maximum upper limit is 4%,” he said. “I have seen rations that will go in excess that my general thoughts are we really tried to not exceed 5% fat in those diets.”

The soybeans do have some enzymatic activity, more specifically urease activity, which the enzyme converts urea to ammonia. He suggests producers not include raw soybeans in combination with products that contain urea, or supplements that contain urea.

“I think a lot of this comes back to the use of free choice supplements, either liquids or blocks that we'll be utilizing in a cow side,” he said.

Whatever the inclusion in the diet to replace distiller’s grains, producers really should be adaptable in this current scenario.

“There are numerous sources of protein, alternative sources of protein that we can utilize in a ration,” Waggoner said. “There's a wide variation in availability by region, as Dr. Farney alluded to, we need to look at all those on a cost premium protein basis.”

He said to also factor in management and logistics when looking at a product like urea.

“Do we have the ability to get that in premix?” Waggoner said. “What does that look like?”

The commodity situation changes very rapidly, and for him, one of the things he’s learned from the pandemic as a whole comes down to price.

“Price is important, but supply is everything,” he said. “Especially just being able to go out there in the market and get something that we could replace.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or

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