Active Efficiency: A Closer Look at the Use of Ethanol Byproducts

By Patrick Radigan

While the direct benefits and issues with ethanol production are the subject of widespread debate, it's hard to deny the positive effect the byproducts from ethanol production are having in Nebraska and beyond.

Although there are a number of feasible uses for the byproducts of ethanol production, Galen Erickson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln animal science professor, said the most practical use for ethanol remnants comes in the form of use as cattle feed. Erickson said the byproducts, known as distiller's grains, have had a major impact on the cattle industry in Nebraska and other areas of the country and world, and will continue to have an impact as ethanol production continues in the future.

"There is enough livestock and poultry to handle all the distiller's grains that will be produced here in the U.S.," Erickson said. "Many people don't realize that; many people think we're going to have so much ethanol and so many distiller's grains produced that we can't possibly feed it all to livestock. That's just not the case."

Understanding Distiller's Grains
In determining the best possible use for ethanol byproducts, Erickson said the first step is looking at the different types of distiller's grains. These grains are produced when leftover materials of the ethanol process are combined with water to break down the nutrients in the leftovers.

From there, this newly-created substance, known as wet distiller's grain (WDG), is either distributed and used as feed or further refined into dry distiller's grain (DDG). The difference between the two, Erickson said, is that the wet grains are not only more potent and efficient, but they also are more cost-effective due to the low amount of energy required during production. Although they are a more potent choice, wet grains can only be transported to feedlots near ethanol plants, making them a limited resource.

On the other hand, dried distiller's grains lack the potency and efficiency of WDG, but DDG have the advantage over the wet option as far as distribution goes, due to the fact they can be shipped around the world once they've been dried. No matter which option cattle producers pick, Erickson said, there are a number of obvious benefits from using distiller's grains as feed.

"You can generally buy distiller's grain at about 80 percent the price of corn or less," he said, "and that distiller's grain will give you performance that is 120 or 130 percent of corn. "So you're buying something at 80 percent and you're getting 130 percent back from it, relative to corn. That's a pretty good deal."

Distiller's Grains in Nebraska
To understand the issues and concerns of using ethanol byproducts as feed, Erickson said it is important to first consider the resources and markets available to ethanol and cattle producers. In a state with large corn and cattle industries, like Nebraska, Erickson said using distiller's grains could have a major impact if done right. By having easy access to ethanol plants, and thus having the ability to use wet distiller's grains, Erickson said Nebraska producers have an edge on others around the country.

"Our plants here in Nebraska don't have to dry it down, they can just ship it out of the plant wet, straight to the feedlot," Erickson said. "That doesn't sound like a big deal,
but it saves about 10 percent of the energy cost for the whole corn ethanol-cattle system, so it's a big deal relative to environmental issues and greenhouse gas emissions."

Dr. Galen Erickson

Dr. Galen Erickson

Erickson also said that the high costs of feeding cattle make distiller's grains all the more important, especially in Nebraska. According to Erickson, the costs of feeding account for around two-thirds the total cost of maintaining a herd of cattle.

Due to the volume and cost of feed required for cattle production, Erickson said the savings from using ethanol byproducts have equaled substantial profits for Nebraska cattle producers.

"They're making $30 to $60 more per animal; our average profitability across the last 20 years has been about $10," Erickson said, "so they're able to increase their revenue by three to six times what their average profitability has been for the last 20 years. That's a big deal."

Sharing the Wealth
Outside of the economic boost for local producers, Erickson said there are benefits other areas of the country and world can get from the use of ethanol byproducts here in Nebraska. In his work as a feedlot specialist for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Erickson said he and his colleagues are looking at a number of ways to affect the cattle industry as a whole.

"Because we have such a large cattle industry, we have a lot of support for beef cattle research," Erickson said. "Things we do here in the beef cattle area are generally adopted in most of the other states as well."

With the resources available, Erickson said they are able to study practical matters, like how much distiller's grain can be fed safely to cattle, as well as improving the process and finding ways to maximize the efficiency of the grain shipped around the country.

One way the UNL community has already affected the feed industry is in work done with Cargill, a multinational agricultural corporation based in Minnetonka, Minn.

Erickson said a lot of the work done on a grain product called Sweet BranĀ® was completed at UNL. Almost 20 years later, that work is helping to increase the quality of feed being used by the Texas cattle community.

"A lot of that original work was done here in the '90's," Erickson said. "Now, Cargill actually ships Sweet BranĀ® , which is a wet corn gluten feed product from Iowa, to Texas and the Texas cattle industry is using that product."

With the availability of wet grains in markets and areas that have previously had only dry grains, Erickson said the practical example set by Nebraska in using WDG will also have a major impact on the feed industry.

"A lot of the early work that we did, and a lot of the early adoption that the Nebraska cattle industry had, has really benefited them down there, because now they've had a better understanding of what this is like," he said.

The UNL community also contributes to producers through the information and research provided through, a site run by the university that provides prices, forums and other interactive content in addition to research reports. In addition to the support from UNL, Erickson said the
research and information provided through the site is largely thanks to contributions from the Nebraska Corn Board.

Evaluating the Alternatives
Although distiller's grains are used primarily as feed, Erickson said there are other uses for these byproducts that are being applied in other areas of the country and world. Areas around the globe have implemented the use of distiller's grain as a source of protein for human consumption, while other places closer to home have discussed the possible use of distiller's grain as a fertilizer.

While Erickson acknowledged that other uses for ethanol byproducts have proven to have practical value, he said the efficiency of grains used as feed, as well as the high demand and economic impact of grain-based feed make it the logical choice for how to best use the leftovers from the ethanol process.

"Many people have looked at how we could use them for human use," Erickson said. "That's fine, but given the amount that we're producing, there's no way, even if every one of us consumed distiller's grains every day directly, we can consume enough distillers grains to use them up.

"So we've got to feed them to livestock in one form or another."

Another option is to use the dry distiller's grains as a source for biodegradable plastic.

In February of this year, The Kearney Hub reported that the Kearney Area Ag Producers Alliance has raised more than $3.5 million to put towards an $18.7 million proposed project that would build a plant to turn resin from distiller's grains into plastic bumpers, seed bins, shipping pallets and parts for automobiles and tractors.

Laurel BioComposite LLC is the only corporation with the rights to use resin for production in the United States after the technology was initially developed in New Zealand.

No matter what the use for the grains, Erickson said there is a large demand for the byproducts of ethanol, should production increase in the future.

"Interestingly, we still could use about twice as much of the distiller's grains that we are currently using in the state," he said, "so we have a lot of room to use more."


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