Dairy producers looking for a high-quality heifer feed that often costs less than traditional corn and soybean feed grains should consider distillers grains, says a Purdue Extension dairy nutrition specialist.
Distillers grains, a co-product of ethanol production, are high in both protein and energy.
Although distillers grains have typically been fed to lactating cows because of their demand for protein, recent Purdue University studies show that distillers grains are a viable feed option for young heifers, though other research has shown distillers grains can be introduced as early as the calf starter diet and are a viable feed option for young heifers.
In a time when grain prices are high, distillers grains also can provide a more economical feedstuff.
"We've seen similar growth performance whether producers are feeding distillers grains or more traditional feeds, such as corn and soybeans," Tamilee Nennich said. "We also found that it doesn't matter if an animal is being fed in a feedlot and has a diet based on harvested forages or if that animal is grazing. Distillers grains can be an option in either situation."
While the nutrient values of distillers grains varies, Nennich said they typically have about three times the protein, fat and mineral content of corn because starch is removed from the grains during ethanol production. Because of the higher nutrient values, producers feeding distillers grains need to monitor the heifer's overall diet to be certain she is getting proper nutrition.
"It's really important to monitor the nutrients animals are getting in their diets," Nennich said. "The most important reason is because we want to make sure we are meeting nutrient requirements. If animals are short on protein or energy, they might not achieve the growth rate we'd like them to."
Dairy producers also need to monitor nutrient excretions when feeding distillers grains. Because they are high in nitrogen and phosphorus, it can be easy to feed animals more than their daily requirements of each nutrient. What the animal can't use will be present in the manure.
"If producers are feeding a fairly high level of distillers grains, they're most likely going to exceed the heifer's nutrient requirements," Nennich said. "Those nutrients will be excreted in higher levels in the manure. Because of that, farmers are going to need to account for the nitrogen and phosphorus in the manure when they are planning application rates and the amount of acreage they need to apply that manure."
As a way to help producers successfully use distillers grains, Nennich created a free fact sheet with research-based information and different diet scenarios. It contains information about why distillers grains are a viable option, what nutrients the feed provides, ages at which they best fit into the animal diet and more.