For Dick Carlson, the rise of the ethanol business – and the increased availability of distillers grain (DG) for feeding livestock – is ultimately a good thing for the cattle business.
But there are also questions about the impacts of feeding DG on beef quality and feed efficiency – and the quicker the industry answers them, the better off it will be.
“Right now, there are more questions than answers,” says Carlson, who serves as nutritionist for Producers Feedlot, a 40,000-head capacity feeding company based in Greeley, Colo. “The reality is that the impacts of the ethanol business will most likely be permanent, and we've got to find ways to work with it.”
To answer some of those questions, Carlson recently headed up a company research project to evaluate the effects of feeding wet distillers grain to 2,000 head of British X Brahman cattle.
Preliminary results show that the cattle fed a higher percentage of DG (25 percent as fed, 15 percent dry-matter basis) had lower quality grades and higher yield grades when compared to cattle fed lower amounts of DG.
At the same time, the cattle fed a high DG ration also generated more profit, a function of their lower cost of gain; the DG blend cost less than the rations consisting of a higher-percentage and higher-priced corn.
“I'm not convinced that feeding DG is going to negatively impact quality and yield grades as much as people think it will,” says Carlson. “But that doesn't mean we don't need to learn everything we can about feeding it.
“Today the beef industry is commonly using 10 percent to 30 percent DGs in finishing rations. With increased demand for corn and significantly greater ethanol production, we will see rations containing 60-percent DG as commonplace,” says Mark McCully, director of supply development for Certified Angus Beef (CAB). “The growth in the ethanol industry will force the largest structural changes seen in the beef industry in the last 50 years due to demand for corn. There are currently 108 ethanol plants in the US producing 32 billion pounds of distillers grains. That number is projected to triple in five years.”
Like Carlson, the rapid increase in the use of DG in finishing rations has researchers scrambling to identify possible impacts on beef quality – and advocating that producer, stockers and feedlots take appropriate measures to improve carcass marbling and yield grade.
An evaluation of 14 separate studies by Chris Reinhardt at Kansas State University earlier this year concluded that marbling levels decreased by 20 points on a 1,000-point scale when rations included more than 29 percent dried distillers grain (DDG) compared to rations that included no DG at all.
“That may not sound like much, but it's significant, especially when grid premiums are on the line,” says Dr. Larry Corah, vice president for CAB.
The KSU study also showed a correlation between feeding increased levels DG with increased percentages of undesirable yield grades.
“Just a hundredth of this scale can mean the difference between Choice and Select, or CAB and Choice,” adds McCully. “A 2005 CAB packer study showed 12 percent of graded cattle had marbling scores that only ranged two percent on either side of the Choice-Select line. Millions of cattle could earn a premium, or drop out of that bonus circle with only minor changes in management, nutrition, health or genetics.”
Results of these studies come on the heels of the 2005 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA), which showed that purveyors, restaurateurs, and retailers ranked insufficient marbling as their leading beef-quality concern.
The NBQA estimated that failure to meet the ideal quality grade makeup costs the beef industry $26.81 for every steer and heifer it harvested in 2005.
Information, too, from Certified Angus Beef points to similar product-quality challenges. Since 1999, the percentage of cattle qualifying for CAB decreased from 21 percent to 14 percent in 2006. The primary reasons for the decline were insufficient marbling and yield grades that are too high.
“Of the eligible cattle that are rejected from CAB, 85 percent of them are rejected for inadequate marbling versus 16 percent being rejected for not meeting the yield grade requirement,” says McCully. “As such, CAB has grave concerns over management factors that might impact marbling score, even to the slightest degree, for fear of decreasing the acceptance percentage below the current level of 14 percent.”
On the positive side, research shows that feeding condensed distillers grains (CDG) and wet distillers grain solubles (WDGS) did not negatively impact marbling.
While data are limited on sensory attributes, tenderness and color stability of beef fed distillers grain, work currently available from the University of Minnesota and the University of Nebraska indicate that there is no effect on flavor profile or tenderness when feeding up to 50 percent DG. However, research also indicates that DG can negatively influence the stability of steaks, making the fat more yellow in color.
Actions to take
So what actions can producers take now to help improve carcass quality – even though increased amounts of dried distillers grain will be fed to cattle in the next few years?
“The current thinking on marbling deposition in feedlot cattle is that weaning is a critical window in determining later marbling potential,” says Fred Owens, professor emeritus, Oklahoma State University, and consultant for Pioneer. “As such, early management is bound to have an impact on marbling deposition and marbling score at harvest.”
One of the advantages of feeding distillers grain to calves, adds Carlson, is that they transition to eating it quickly – and for this reason, it may be a valuable part of the ration to provide necessary amounts of energy early on to ensure marbling down the line.
Carlson is concerned about the possible environmental implications of feeding DG. Because it's high in nutrients like phosphorous and sulfur, feedlot operators will need to keep a close eye on how DG impacts their nutrient-management practices.
“We need to conduct a lot of research on this, too,” Carlson says. “We need to know if the higher-levels of phosphorous and sulfur in DG are going into the manure.”
Presenting at a Feeding Quality Forum sponsored by CAB, Pfizer and Feedlot magazine in Amarillo, Texas, Nov. 9, 2006 Owens laid out suggestions by industry segment:
Cow/calf – Producing a quality, consistent product begins long before the calf is born. Producers should aggressively seek out and use sires that are proven not just for desirable production characteristics, but also carcass quality.
Select for cattle that are polled, possess calm dispositions and avoid the use of Bos indicus genetics. They should also use technologies that enable them to track feedlot and carcass information from individual calves back to specific cows – and retain those cows that produce desirable feedlot and carcass characteristics.
Select for cows with calm dispositions, and smaller mature size for more efficiency maintenance. They should castrate calves at birth, and dehorn them prior to sale. They should avoid implants, practice early weaning or creep feeding and provide supplements during bad weather to avoid periods of energy deficiency among their calves. They should also preconditioning their calves with appropriate vaccinations and ensure their calves are stocker- or feedlot-adapted prior to delivery.
Stocker/backgrounders -- Buy only pre-conditioned, good-dispositioned calves. They should practice parasite control and provide appropriate vaccination boosters. It's also critical that they maintain the rate of gain of their calves to ensure high levels of marbling later on, and have supplemental feed available during periods of drought or snow. They should avoid implants, and retain ownership of their cattle through finishing so they can receive feedlot and carcass information on their cattle.
Feedlots – Feeders should buy only pre-conditioned tame cattle. They should administer appropriate vaccinations, boosters and parasite controls. Their rations should be balanced with high concentrate containing ionophores and other compounds. They should not use implants. They should sort and sell cattle to avoid excess fat thickness and avoid over-weight carcasses. And, they should share health, performance, and carcass data to the originating ranch and stocker operator, if applicable.
Be aware that feeding flaked grains, especially corn, which can suppress marbling scores by as much as 14 percent.
“We need to control things from the pasture to the plate if we expect to maintain beef quality,” Owens adds.
Editor's note: National Cattlemen's Beef Association will be funding a wide array of research projects aimed at answering the many questions surrounding feeding DG. CAB has advocated that the research should also help characterize the nutrient content of DGs, and provide a better understanding of food safety ramifications of feeding it.