Ethanol market turmoil may affect cattle rations

Consider alternative ration strategies if distillers grains become scarce.

Tim Lundeen, Editor

April 2, 2020

2 Min Read
University of Nebraska Walz DDG cattle.jpg
For many years now, cattle producers in Nebraska have fed distillers grains to pregnant beef cows because it has been an economical source of protein.Troy Walz

The current economic situation has resulted in lower crude oil prices, followed by increased difficulty for ethanol plants to produce competitive fuel sources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) cow/calf systems and stocker management specialist Karla Wilke said in a recent UNL "BeefWatch" post. Under this scenario, she said ethanol plants are planning to shut down or reduce capacity until the economy stabilizes.

This means that cattle producers may find themselves without distillers grains for a period of time. Unfortunately, she said if ethanol plants are not producing ethanol at all, then there will be no supply of distillers grains.

Wilke provided some strategies for beef cattle producers to manage rations during expected limited distillers grain supplies.

Other university beef cattle specialists have also provided recommendations for replacing ethanol co-products in rations.

Feeding calves for a slower rate of gain. According to Wilke, producers who background their calves may choose to continue to feed calves at a slower rate of gain to wait for a market upturn as well as to reduce the need for distillers grains. An example diet (as-fed basis) might include 11.25 lb. of corn silage, 4 lb. of alfalfa, 2.5 lb. of corn and 5.5 lb. of hay millet for a 600 lb. calf to gain 1.5 lb. per day.

Providing a nitrogen source for the rumen microbes. Cattle producers have fed distillers grains to pregnant beef cows because it has been an economical source of protein, Wilke said, but a source of nitrogen for the rumen microbes to enable them to digest poor-quality forages is sufficient. This can be supplied by alfalfa or by urea-based supplements, field peas or other rumen degradable sources of protein, she added.

Lactating cows need a source of energy as well as protein, Wilke said. Providing 7 lb. (as fed) of alfalfa, along with 28 lb. of good-quality meadow hay, would be an option for 1,300 lb. cows until grass is ready to be grazed. However, hay samples should be tested for quality, because the total digestible nutrients (TDN) of the base hay is critical for this to work, Wilke said.

Alternative sources of protein. Determining what to use as an alternative source of protein is dependent on availability, commodity price and transportation costs, Wilke said. For example, sources that may be available in eastern Nebraska may be cost prohibitive to transport to western Nebraska.

Calculating supplement cost per unit of protein. This calculation allows producers to compare the prices of the actual protein being delivered on an equal basis, Wilke said. However, if two hypothetical commodities are similar in crude protein price, other factors need to be considered, such as how much of the protein is rumen undegradable or if storage and handling costs differ between commodities.

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