Are distillers grains right for your small ruminant operation?

By Brayden Thompson, Ohio State University undergraduate summer research intern

If you are familiar with livestock feed ingredients, there is a good chance you have heard of a product called dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) or more commonly referred to as distillers grains. Distillers grains are a byproduct of ethanol production and are most commonly made from corn in the U.S. but can also come from wheat in other parts of the world. However, few may be aware of how DDGS is produced and how processing can impact its feeding quality for small ruminants.

Ethanol plants producing DDGS is like going to a potluck dinner. You know there are going to be several variations of mac and cheese. While they are still all mac and cheese, they are not all going to taste the same and this is similar for the production of DDGS. When ethanol plants produce DDGS, they do not all follow the same production practices, since this product is not regulated. This results in a product that can be highly variable between ethanol plants and even within batches at the same ethanol plant. These DDGS differences need to be understood to properly include this byproduct feed ingredient into your small ruminant ration.

Processing of distillers grains
To fully understand why there is such a range in nutrients in DDGS, it is important to understand the processing of this product. Before the commercial production and use of ethanol, DDGS were a byproduct of the whiskey industry. Today, whiskey distillers still produce distillers grains however, these products are typically sold in the form of wet distillers grains (WDG). This product does not have a long shelf life and has a moisture level typically upwards of 60%. With all the different kinds of feedstuffs available, it can be easy to get confused and mix up some of the names. Distillers grains is sometimes confused with the product brewers grains. Brewers grains are made from grains such as hops and barley that are used in the production of beer. As of 2022, Ohio ranked 8th in the nation in craft breweries with 402 active locations. With the number of breweries in Ohio on the rise, I would not be surprised to see an increase in brewers grains in the livestock industry in the coming years.

In terms of quality, several factors play a key role in determining the value of DDGS including, but not limited to, drying temperature and time, concentration of solubles added, how the grain is processed and fermented, and what type of grain (corn, wheat, etc.) is used. One factor affecting the quality of the DDGS is determined by how long and at what temperature the grain is dried. Grain that is overcooked will be darker in color and have a reduced nutrient content because of the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction changes the bioavailability of the nutrients within the grain by tightly binding the bonds between the proteins and carbohydrates in a way that becomes more difficult for the rumen microbes to digest. This is the same reaction that occurs whenever you roast a marshmallow to make S’mores. Before you start to roast the marshmallow, it is white. However, as you roast your marshmallow, it becomes that perfect golden brown that we all love. In addition to cooking, another challenge is attributed to the amount of solubles, such as acids and water, added back into the DDGS during the distillation process. I mentioned that ethanol varies from plant to plant, but it is also important to know that it can vary between batches within ethanol plants as well. This variation is also in part to the temperature fluctuations and drying time.

How do I incorporate distillers grains into my operation?
Now that we have an understanding of what distillers grains are, you are probably wondering how they can be added into your operation. One way DDGS can be added into your operation would be through creep feeding. Creep feeding is when you offer grain to your lambs prior to weaning. Here at The Ohio State University, we use this practice with our lambs. Another way you can add DDGS into your operation is by adding it into your feed ration. It may be beneficial to talk with your feed mill to see if they offer DDGS and see how incorporating that into your next ration would affect the cost.

Are distillers grains the future of your operation?
In order to determine if distillers grains are right for your operation you need to look at your production goals and evaluate the best way for your operation to reach those effectively and efficiently. If you are looking for a cheaper protein source for your operation, I would recommend looking into distillers grains. It is important to remember when it comes to raising livestock, that it is not ¨one size fits all.¨

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