By MATT MERRITT*
*Matt Merritt is with 1Block Public Relations.
It was not that long ago that distillers grains, produced alongside ethanol at production facilities across the U.S., were considered an afterthought. They were a byproduct of the ethanol production process, something to be disposed of as quickly as possible.
How times have changed. What was once a nuisance for biofuel producers has emerged as a force in the feed industry, comparable in production and use to soybean meal today. A focus on quality and consistency, along with new species-specific nutrition profiles, has created strong demand for the product from feeders both domestic and international.
In the last 15 years, production of dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) has grown by 480% to an estimated 38.9 million metric tons. About 28 mmt of that is fed domestically, with the rest going to exports, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The old days
Dr. Kurt Rosentrater is a professor in the department of agriculture and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University as well as executive director of the Distillers Grains Technical Council. He has watched DDGS evolve.
The technical council was formed in 1945 by founders from alcohol distillers such as Jim Beam, Seagram's and Hiram Walker, with a goal of promoting and educating about the value of distillers grains. It was a challenge at the time, given that each distillery had its own proprietary method for producing alcohol. The resulting distillers grains varied dramatically depending on where they originated.
“Historically, when you look at whiskeys, vodkas, mash fermentation conditions, ... the DDGS from all the distilleries was completely different from each other,” Rosentrater said. “The mentality of nutritionists was that no two [distillers grains] are alike.”
Nutritionists' opinions seemed to be confirmed as fuel ethanol production took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The focus was solely on fuel production for most biorefineries, and the DDGS product was highly variable.
The problem was “consistency, or lack of consistency, early on. It was almost a cowboy mentality, and we saw a lot of variations in nutrients,” according to Dr. Kevin Herrick, technical services director at POET, a biofuel and DDGS producer based in Sioux Falls, S.D.
However, as the industry matured, so did its technology. In addition, biofuel producers quickly recognized the need for additional revenue streams.
“The economics of the industry really forced the industry to focus on quality and consistency of the DDG product,” Rosentrater said.
That focus on quality and consistency has changed the way biofuel producers think and operate today.
Dr. Scott Tilton, manager of nutrition services for biofuel and DDGS producer Flint Hills Resources in Wichita, Kan., said biofuel producers have broadened their perspectives.
“We're definitely changing paradigms with how we look at an ethanol plant,” he said. “We're an animal food-producing facility as well.”
As animal food-producing facilities, they can produce a range of options for feeding distillers grains that allow nutritionists to carefully tailor diets. Different formulas of protein, oil and fiber allow DDGS to be used in operations ranging from cow/calf to dairy to poultry, swine and even pets, among others.
POET recently introduced the ProPellet distillers grain product that takes the company's traditional loose Dakota Gold DDGS product and presses it into 0.25 in. pellets or 0.75 in. cubes. This allows cattle and bison producers to feed DDGS in the field without dealing with the loss that comes with a loose product.
“ProPellet has provided a great new alternative for operations across the U.S., but particularly in western cattle country,” Herrick said. “You get all the benefits of Dakota Gold DDGS in a form that allows it to be fed anytime, anywhere.”
Flint Hills continues to offer its range of products for cattle operations and is expanding distillers grains offerings with its new NexPro, which has 54% protein content on a dry matter basis. Tilton expects the new product to open new opportunities in species-specific feeds for poultry, aquaculture and other industries.
That evolution in the industry has reset the thinking about DDGS.
“My feeling is it's changing. We still have a lot of work to do in terms of promoting DDGS,” Rosentrater said.
There are some who still think DDGS feeding must be limited due to the variability, he said, adding, “I think that's an antiquated notion. I don't think that reflects an understanding of the quality of DDGS these days.”
University research and trials, along with company-specific trials, have now demonstrated the value of DDGS. In fact, according to U.S. Grains Council literature, “DDGS has been the most extensively researched feed ingredient among all major feed ingredients used in the global feed industry in the past 20 years.”
What that has revealed is the enormous opportunity for protein and energy at a low price. One key to that value proposition has been a better understanding of the energy that comes from fiber.
“Yes, fat is a source of energy, but there are a lot of other sources, and animals can extract energy from fiber, amino acids,” Herrick said. “So, even though fat is a source, it doesn't equate to the total energy in a feed.”
Rosentrater works to educate nutritionists on that very topic for a number of species.
“The nutritionists are finally starting to understand that there is energy in fiber, and monogastrics do utilize that fiber,” he said.
Rosentrater also highlighted the antioxidant benefit from the oil in DDGS as well as the probiotic effects of yeast.
“If you grab a handful of DDGS, it smells like beer, like fermentation. What you're really smelling is residual yeast,” he said.
It's also affordable. Rosentrater noted that DDGS has "historically been and continues to be a bargain compared to soybean meal on a per unit protein basis."
It's not just soybean meal, Herrick said. DDGS compares well to other commonly used feed ingredients such as canola meal, gluten feed, gluten mean, soy hulls and more.
Looking forward, Tilton said he expects the industry to continue to evolve, with more specialization in product offerings.
“In a general trend, ... we're going to see more and more of a push to separate protein from fiber. That allows more flexibility,” he said. “What we're doing is to try to tailor it, making good ingredients for diets of a couple species. It's truly the development of a portfolio of products rather than a product.”