Friday, April 18, 2008

Distillers' Grains: Twice as Nice ... Or Not?

I hear a lot about distillers grain. Most weekdays I listen to the Big Show on WHO Radio (farm reports and farm talk) and their markets are often sponsored by Hawkeye Gold, a seller of dried distillers grain. On the radio the announcers are pretty high on the stuff (they are paid to be impressed though) and I know that it is starting to take off around the state, especially with the high corn and feed prices. Despite all of the good things I have heard about distillers grain I am beginning to hear some people that think it is a bad idea.

There was a tiny blurb in this months issue of "The Stockman Grassfarmer" titled, "Distillers' Grains Twice As Likely to Create Deadly E.Coli Strain". Basically the article outlines the findings of researchers at Kansas State University. They found that, "beef carcasses that cattle fed distillers' grains (ethanol byproduct) have twice as much E. Coli 0157 compared to cattle fed regular feedlot rations.

The article went on to say that this certain form of E. Coli is especially dangerous for humans because our stomach acid doesn't kill it. I've never been one to be an alarmist and I do recognize that this article is coming from a publication that does have a reason to promote grass-finished, but it does cause one to think.

What is the reason behind the increased push to feed distillers grain? Is it because we need to use up all that is left behind in ethanol production? Is it because it is a good cheap source of feed for the feedlot owners? Or is it because the ethanol industry needs another thing to make ethanol seem like a good idea? (In keeping with the idea of full disclosure I should admit that I always fill up with ethanol ... it's cheaper)

I do know one thing for sure. Any bad press about distillers' grains being used in the feedlots is good press for the grass-finishers out there. And I plan to do a little more research into this.


Steven said...

I wouldn't be so quick to say that it's cheaper. I have a feeling that if it was cheaper, they would raise the price to get more profit margin.
check out this data on mpg with regular gas and e85.

Ethan Book said...

Steven - Yeah, I know of the differences between regular and E-85. I just use E-10 which is pretty much at every pump here in Iowa and is about 3 to 5 cents less. To use the E-85 you need a new vehicle ... I'm not going to be having one of those anytime soon!! :)

Steven said...

I'm kind of glad that the three Ethanol plants that were planned for our local area are falling through. I'm really afraid that they are going to find out how bad of an idea it is pretty soon and lots of investors are going to loose money.

Holy cow... so this guy from work just have me the bill he made up for planting our 8 acres last night.'s really high compared to any numbers I've seen before. I think he thinks he's going to stick me for it because I'm not a "farmer" and probably don't know what the going rate is.
The guy is my age (26) and about twice my size... so it's going to be fun telling him I don't like the bill. lol

JRG said...

Ethan, Remember the only reason the E10 is cheaper than regular gas is the obscene subsidies the ethanol industry is getting. You and I are still paying for those subdidies, so it really isn't cheaper.

We really don't see much ethanol at stations here in the Intermountain West so I don't use it here. Everytime I travel through the Midwest and put ethanol in my vehicle, my mileage drops 10-15%, so I try to avoid it.

When we were in MO we fed DDG to steers as supplement on pasture and they did real well. As a feedstuff the only thing I didn't like was we could only get it as the dry flakes and it blew away badly during feeding. I enjoyed the aroma for sure.

I'm not sure I'm ready to buy the higher EC157 when DDG is fed as no one can provide a physiological explanation for the response. I'm as anti-ethanol as anyone around so I don't have a vested interest.

Steven said...

I forgot to say... here in Missouri I believe ALL gas is 10% ethanol by state law.

SO, I guess my mileage is already lower.

Rich said...

Personally, I'm not a big fan of ethanol, even when corn was cheap it didn't seem to make much economic sense. As the inputs needed to raise corn increase in cost the cost of ethanol will also increase. Most of the inputs needed to produce corn and ethanol are the very same petroleum based products that are supposed to be replaced by ethanol.

I don't think an increased demand for corn to produce ethanol is the basis for the increased cost of a bushel of corn. Corn is at an all time high for many of the same reasons that crude oil, natural gas, gasoline, and fertilizers are high, the U.S. dollar is worth less, and every one of these products are traded on the world market (and most are imported). The dollars value is lower, therefore it takes more dollars to buy the commodities traded on the world market.

I don't think the alarmist "chicken little" type articles claiming that grain-fed or feedlot finished beef is going to kill you make it any easier to market grass-fed beef. Regardless of the methods used to finish beef, all the buying public will hear is "Beef is an unhealthy meat", and they will be less inclined to buy any beef, grass-fed or not.

Jena said...

---Is it because we need to use up all that is left behind in ethanol production? Is it because it is a good cheap source of feed for the feedlot owners?---

At least here in Michigan it is a combination of both of these. Distillers' grain is cheaper than corn but more than that it is readily available and just as convenient. From what I have seen it is a bit of a "why not" rather than a "why".

Ethan Book said...

Rich - I'm not sure if everyone hears beef is bad for you. It seems (at least here in Iowa) there are plenty of people who still want beef, but they don't want to deal with the recalls, health cares, and such. Just my observations.

Jena - I do like your assessment. It is "why not" instead of "why".

Mellifera said...

Distillers' grain- is that the same thing as sour mash? When we lived in Iowa ~10 years ago there were a few ethanol plants and my parents commented that cows really like the sour mash left over from ethanol processing. Considering I've seen ads for chicken poop scraped out of poultry barns as cattle feed (no joke), sour mash is really not that surprising.

My understanding of the E. coli O157:H7 and grain feeding is that what makes EC157 dangerous isn't just the toxins it produces- it's also that it likes acidic conditions much more than your typical E. coli.

This means after a person eats it, it's more likely to survive the trip through the hydrochloric acid bath in your stomach and set up house in your intestines. (Our guts are obviously full of other harmless E. coli already, but those are mostly descendants of a few lucky survivors- the human stomach is not a happy place for most bacteria.)

So anyway, cow digestive tracts are not as acid as humans'.... UNLESS... you feed them grain. (Or even better, sour mash?) Their GI tracts aren't built for digesting grain really, so some of it makes it to the colon intact, where it can be fermented by bacteria. Hay (or presumably, grass) by contrast doesn't do that- it either digests more fully in the stomachs and/or doesn't ferment the same way in the colon later on. So the grain-fed bovine colon becomes very acidic, and the typical bacteria that would normally live there (like more innocuous E. coli and other bugs) get nuked by the acid. But there's still all that delicious bacteria food in there, so somebody's got to eat it... enter acid-resistant E. coli O157:H7, who couldn't care less that the pH is 3.

This is all from the article at (The article also mentions that heat-treating grain can help solve this problem, so depending on what distiller's grain goes through at the ethanol plant, it may have a different result. Although I wouldn't bet on it since that wasn't what the ethanol plant was trying to do.)

As a side note, I think it's kind of interesting that this was published in Science magazine in 1998. "Science" is one of the the top 2 scientific publications in the world, and every single scientist reads it. It's not like this information went out under the radar and nobody ever heard about it.

And yet I notice that now, 10 years later on the CDC's "Prevention: Agriculture" page for E. coli O157:H7, not a word about grass/hay vs. grain is mentioned. How slow them cogs do turn.... ; )

Mellifera said...

Ok, sorry, I just found a couple more articles on this and I think they're kind of funny.

Any time somebody makes an outrageous claim like the above-linked scientists did, it starts a debate between those who have always advocated the old practice (can't go back on it now) and younger scientists who are eager to make a name for themselves by proving all the old codgers wrong. Here we have a fascinating case study on How Science Works.

The first responses from the Old Guard camp are "But your study didn't look at X, Y, or Z! Can we really believe you?" See and Note that this second one looks like it's trying to say "The 1998 article is wrong," but what it's really saying is "Before we can be sure we should look at X, Y, and Z."

Then once they have some time to do an experiment and come back with some actual data of their own (instead of picking on the other guy's study), you get articles like this one from 1999:

Later on in 2001 we have the following article reporting results from other studies sparked by the firestorm of controversy. It's best summarized as "This just in, *53* separate studies confirm feeding grain to cattle DOES cause higher populations of E. coli O:157:H7." So there.

And finally my two cents, which is that a couple of these articles mention that EC157 can be passed through dirty drinking water but none of them actually controlled for water quality- that is, one study might have had clean water and other ones might've had a stale trough with poop in it that gets refilled once a week- we don't know! But that could definitely explain the differences between the "pasture is better" vs the "pasture makes no difference" studies, couldn't it? What's more, the scientists clearly didn't even think it important to keep it consistent so that they'd know whether their cows had high numbers of bacteria "because of their diet" rather than from just drinking water an infected cow had pooped in. Which just goes to show, sometimes all PhD stands for is "Piled High and Deep."


On this last news site there are also a couple headlines for E. coli problems specifically with distillers' grain. From a microbiology standpoint it's looking like a pretty bad idea, even moreso than normal grain feeding.

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