Nearly 20 years after the ethanol boom created a new feed source now fundamental to feedlot rations, more cow-calf and stocker operators are reaping the benefits, too, thanks to the efforts of Dusty Turner.
Turner, who grew up in the Oklahoma panhandle north of Goodwell and now lives in Edmond, was working in the cattle feeding industry when ethanol byproducts first became plentiful in the mid-2000s. He has since found a way to put that same high-value feed ingredient into a dry range cube.
The company he founded, MasterHand Milling, makes an extruded pellet from dried distillers grains, commonly referred to as DDGs.
Distillers grains are a byproduct of ethanol production, the process by which corn is turned into liquid fuel. One-third of the original grain is left behind as a mash, which can be dried down to a meal-like consistency for easier storage and handling.
"What you've done is you've concentrated all of the nutrients and removed the starch," Turner said. "Starch is what causes bloat, acidosis and other digestive issues. The cattle do need a little starch to deposit fat and marble, but they need more energy than starch, so that's why this is ideal as a feed source."
Wet, dried and modified distillers grains have become a mainstay in cattle feeding rations, but it wasn't that way when Turner graduated from Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva and started his career.
Early on, cattle feeders saw ethanol plants as competitors for corn, and it took time before the symbiotic relationship between biofuel production and cattle feeding became apparent.
By then, Turner had been through Hitch Feeders' management-training program and had also worked at Golden Belt Feeders for a time before landing his dream job at Supreme Cattle Feeders near Liberal. It was there, assisted by a team of "out of the box" consulting nutritionists, that he first became acquainted with feeding ethanol byproducts.
Turner was so convinced of the benefits that after ten years running the feedlot, he switched careers and founded two large ethanol plants in Southwest Kansas that are still in operation today.
As Turner recalls, feedlots that were initially only willing to pay 75 percent the price of corn for them soon came to recognize their value.
"Today cattle feeders are paying 95 to 98 percent the value of corn on a dry matter basis, whereas at first they were discounting it, and now it's in every mixed ration you find across the country," he said.
Putting DDGs into a cube gives cow-calf and stocker producers a convenient way to access the same benefits, he explained.
"Feeding this at a pound a day will put a half-pound of extra gain on a steer, just because it's such a concentrated energy source," he said. "And the TDN (or total digestible nutrients) level on it is 93 to 94 percent, so they are able to utilize nearly all of it."
Since it is digested slowly and used very efficiently by the animal's rumen, it is ideal for cattle on native range or winter corn stalks.
"You don't have to feed it everyday. You could feed it twice a week," he said. "All you need is roughage, such as free choice hay, and it's just like feeding them in a grow yard. Or you can cake them on the ground, and they are getting their roughage source from grass and their energy and protein from the cube."
The price of the product is in the low $300 a ton range, which figures out to around 15 to 17 cents per pound, and it pencils out very competitively at recommended feeding rates, he said.
"You can buy stuff that's cheaper per ton, but it's not cheaper in terms of what it costs per head per day to feed it," he said.
Turner is now collecting research trials, including one recently conducted at Oklahoma State University, which confirm the product doubles or even triples the rate of gain in a clinical setting.
MasterHand Milling also continues to sign up new dealers, with four so far in Colorado, including WW Feed and Supply in La Junta.
Owner Robby Froman said they've been carrying the product for three years and are very pleased with it. The company has been great to work with, he said, and the product is popular with customers because it delivers a lot of bang for their buck.
"You get more protein and fat out of that cube for the price than you can with anything else," he said.
"Cattle crack" is what they call it at Cattlemen's Resources in Brush, according to manager Cari Vondy.
"We love it. We sell a lot of it," she said. "People are using it all across the spectrum: on calves to help them get started eating, as a supplement on corn stalks, or for additional protein as the weather turns cold. Some of our customers feed it year-round."
To get the company to where it is now, Turner's biggest challenge was finding a way to put distillers grains into a cubed product.
"I tried everything in the world to pelletize DDGs through a traditional pellet mill. But I couldn't, because it had so much fat in it," he recalled. "Then I found a technology that a group of guys were trying to roll out but they hadn't been able to make it work and for whatever reason — maybe just by adding cowboy ingenuity to the system — in 2014 we were the first ones to commercialize extruding DDG cubes."
The plant they built in Lexington, Neb., uses processing equipment that is standard in the plastics industry, with a few tweaks.
"People will say there's no way you can pelletize something that's 8 percent fat," he says. "But, no, it's true. It comes right out of the ethanol plant and goes right into our equipment and then right out to the ranch."
Turner hopes the determination it took to bring the product to market will inspire others involved in agriculture to be innovative, strive for the best and never give up on finding solutions.
"The glass is always half-full with me, and I'm never going to take no for an answer," he said. "There is always opportunity out there if you're willing to try, and you're willing to focus, and you're willing to give up a little bit to get to where you want to go."
The advantages of distillers grains are catching on around the world, and Turner's company has already made a few preliminary shipments to Argentina.
"They are chasing us, and if we don't keep pushing ahead to change and advance and get better and more efficient, we will get passed up," he added.