Supplying 50% of a feedyard's corn needs, wet distillers' grains with solubles (WDG) are working well with many northern feeding operations. But what about the High Plains yards that often use steam-flaked corn to boost the energy value of corn?

Feedyards in western Nebraska, western Kansas and the Texas Panhandle/South Plains area market more than 15 million cattle a year — 70% of the nation's some 22.5 million head. Over 35% of those are marketed from Texas yards, and Texas ships in 60% or more of the corn needed for feedyard rations.

These yards depend on Corn Belt grain to produce quality cattle that perform well on feed. WDG are slowly taking the place of some of that corn.

But like the overall fate of ethanol production, the jury is still out on the right formulation of distillers' grains to replace straight corn as the main feedstuff in a steam-flaked ration.

Don Topliff, animal nutritionist at the West Texas A&M University College of Agriculture, Canyon, TX, sees various kinks in using distillers' grains in a steam-flake ration.

“We're still trying to determine the best way to use these co-products in our rations,” says Topliff, who has also been involved in western Kansas ranch and feeding operations.

UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA research indicates that in a dry-rolled corn mill, a ration of up to 50% distillers' grains will not affect cattle performance when compared to dry-rolled corn. “But recent data may show that was overly optimistic,” says Toplif. “We're finding that with steam-flaked corn mills, the number is closer to 10-15% for WDG.”

G. E. Erickson, University of Nebraska Extension beef cattle nutritionist, points out that in dry-roll mills, WDG have 120-150% the energy value of dry-rolled corn in beef finishing diets. Wet corn gluten feed (WCGF) has 100-110% the energy value, depending on steep level in gluten feed.

“Dry co-products have less energy,” says Erickson. “Our data clearly show that WDG and steam-flaked corn do not fit together as well as WDG and dry-rolled or high-moisture corn. But, up to 20% still fits well in steam-flaked-based rations. WDG is equivalent to steam-flaked corn instead of better.”

Erickson says Texas A&M suggests that WDG made from corn vs. WDG made from sorghum can explain some of these differences between Nebraska and Southern Plains research.

“With feedlot cattle, more intense corn processing may be optimal for diets containing WCGF,” he says. “It appears that with diets containing WDG, high-moisture corn and dry-rolled corn work well. In the future, with increased supply of co-products, feeding combinations of WDG and WCGF may be advantageous.”

As ethanol production evolves, he says many new co-products will be available in the future. Until then, finding the ideal methods of utilizing existing dried distillers' grains or WDG will be priorities at feedyards, especially those using steam-flaked corn.

“Steam flaking corn raises the energy value of corn,” says Topliff. “We expect better cattle performance from it.”

With the current estimates of WDG being able to replace only 10-15% of corn in the steam-flake milling process, large amounts of corn will still be needed by steam-flake yards. “That is a dilemma for yards facing $150-200/head losses at corn prices in the $5-6/bu. range,” says Topliff.

He says that WDG fat and sulfur content can vary considerably, adding that sulfuric acid is used to control pH in the distilling process. “Ethanol plants are working on that process, as well as overall methods of processing and handling distillers' grains.