Managing through feed supply disruptions

SDSU Extension
Farm Forum

BROOKINGS — One of the latest issues to result from the COVID-19 pandemic is the changes in the distillers grain marketplace. SDSU Extension Beef Feedlot Management Associate Warren Rusche explained that COVID-19 mitigation efforts have dramatically reduced the amount of ethanol produced. Many plants have either reduced output or are considering similar measures. This has resulted in reduced supplies of distillers grains on the market, an increase in prices for all forms of distillers, and potential availability issues.

“This situation presents a challenge for the cattle feeding industry given that nearly all cattle fed today receive some amount of corn processing byproducts,” Rusche said. “There are options available that will meet the cattle’s needs and the performance objectives of producers. The ideal choice will be dependent on product availability and price in a given location as well as available storage and handling equipment.”

Rusche added that oilseed meal offers one alternative to distillers grains. For most of the corn belt, soybean meal will be the most widely available, but in some regions sunflower, canola or other oilseed meals could be an option.

“Soybean meal is often considered the ‘gold standard’ of protein supplements because of its high crude protein concentration and consistency,” Rusche said. “Compared to distillers, soybean meal will have less rumen undegradable protein (RUP), which could be of concern with lighter cattle with higher metabolizable protein requirements.”

Commercial supplements are available in both dry and liquid formulations. Dry supplements can be formulated with or without urea, while most liquid supplements are urea and molasses based. Rusche points out a key advantage of commercial supplements is that the formulations are consistent and can include all necessary vitamins, minerals and medication.

Certain high-protein forages such as high-protein alfalfa or early cut grass forages could supply all or a portion of the supplemental protein required. This strategy will likely result in reduced dietary energy concentration due to the substitution of concentration for forage.

Fixing this issue is not as simple as switching from one feed ingredient to another. Rusche explained that producers should consult with a qualified nutritionist to evaluate all the options and consequences related to changing diets. It may be time to evaluate dietary crude protein levels, especially if the cost per unit of protein is increasing. Replacing distillers grains with a supplement with increased crude protein concentration, such as soybean meal, would result in greater corn inclusion and therefore increased risk of sub-acute acidosis. Moving away from feed such as wet or modified distillers grains could affect cattle feeding behavior and increase the amount of sorting in the bunk. Because distillers grains typically contain relatively high amounts of phosphorus, switching protein may require a re-formulation of the vitamin/trace mineral supplement as well.

To evaluate different feedstuff choices, use the SDSU Extension Feed Cost Comparison Tool, found at This tool evaluates feedstuffs based on the delivered cost of protein or energy on a dry matter basis considering dry matter and nutrient content and the estimated costs of delivery.