Kentucky cattlemen are doing this by taking advantage of one of their state’s popular resources – bourbon.
Whiskey distilleries have been operating in Kentucky for centuries, making it the No. 1 state in bourbon production. Since 1999, bourbon production has increased by 300 percent, with an increase of craft distilleries.
According to University of Kentucky Extension beef cattle specialist Jeff Lehmkuhler, the smaller craft distilleries are not investing in the drying equipment for the byproduct after the bourbon is made, creating whole stillage. Just like feeding coproducts from various goods in the Corn Belt, producers are utilizing whiskey.
“It’s the same basic process you have with fuel ethanol,” Lehmkuhler says. “But here it’s human consumption.”
Does the phrase “slopping the hogs” sound familiar? According to Lehmkuhler, that expression comes from feeding the bourbon byproduct whole stillage. It coins the term “slop” due to its makeup of 92 percent water and only 8 percent dry matter. It’s a common byproduct that Kentucky producers are feeding their cattle.
“Cows find it very palatable and drink it right up,” Lehmkuhler says. “It’s replacing some water cattle would normally drink, because they are getting plenty of it from the feed.”
Whole stillage is created when the ethanol evaporates out and water and mash remain. According to Lehmkuhler, the stillage is a great protein and energy source for cattle, and it has a very similar makeup of any other fuel ethanol, or distillers grain products, that have not been deoiled.
“It tends to run 10 to upper 20 percent on protein,” Lehmkuhler says.
Lehmkuhler warns the whole stillage has a higher fat content than most feeds, and feeding too much of it can hinder fiber digestion. He recommends at least 10 to 15 gallons of the stillage to a mature cow and 7 to 10 gallons for a feeder.
“Some feed drastically more than that,” Lehmkuhler says. “But I don’t recommend it because of excess fat and mineral imbalances.”
The stillage is low in calcium and high in phosphorus. Lehmkuhler suggests supplementing to bring the calcium levels up and to keep a close eye on the levels of phosphorus.
Kentucky beef producer Billy Gaines views the phosphorus in the stillage as an advantage. This way his cattle are getting that mineral, and he doesn’t have to supplement it. He picks up 2,000 gallons every day, six days a week, and feeds around 100 mother cows out on pasture. He has been doing it for the past four years.
“It helps keep them in shape for rebreeding purposes,” Gaines says. “Naturally, you want to give them all the nutrition you can.”
The stillage is straight from the distillery and fresh when Gaines picks it up and goes into the feeder trough hot at 160º. Gaines noticed the older cows have learned to let it cool down before they dig in, and the calves learn very quickly to do the same.
Don’t let it spoil
Distillers are very eager to give the byproduct away to cattle operations. If the stillage is not being fed, it is considered an industrial waste with disposal regulations. The byproduct is free to producers willing to come and get it, but it doesn’t store very well.
“Only take what you are going to be able to feed because it will spoil,” Lehmkuhler says. “You can store it in a big tank, but shelf life is short, like a few days, because of the high fat levels, and it will freeze in the winter.”
If distillers are unable to find a useful way to remove the bourbon byproduct, their production slows down. The industrial regulations concerning the bourbon “waste” don’t exist when it’s being used as feed, making it easy for a producer – until it spoils.
“If it spoils, it reverts back to an industrial waste,” Lehmkuhler says. “That means a whole different set of regulations when you go to dispose of it.”
Lehmkuhler stresses only taking enough for that day’s feed, because the regulations are not worth dealing with if it spoils. Even the cows won’t find it as appealing. “If you leave it on the truck, it will settle out,” Gaines says. “It can get a little sour and not taste as good to the cows.”
Even though the initial cost of the bourbon byproduct is free, the pocketbook takes a hit in the equipment, fuel and time categories.
“It’s free down there, but it’s not free by the time you get it home,” Gaines says. “There is a lot of expenses of keeping the truck up and being on the road with fuel and time.”
Gaines drives 20 miles round trip every day to a local distillery near Lexington, Kentucky, to get the byproduct. Gaines knows another producer who drives 40 miles round trip. Lehmkuhler advises for this type of feeding to be effective, it has to be locally based or it gets really expensive.
“We have several producers doing it,” Lehmkuhler says. “But it all varies on the location, where they are at and what the distillers are doing.”
This type of feed requires a durable feeding pad, troughs and a solid road, according to Gaines. With the loaded tanks, his truck weighs around 40,000 pounds.
“It’s not very convenient to feed it and to be able to get that truck to the different cow herds,” Gaines says. “But I knew this would be a good feed to feed if I could come up with the where-with-all.”
After four years of feeding the byproduct and investing in the equipment, Gaines continues to utilize the stillage, and he likes the idea of a constant feed source available to him.
“The reason I stay with it is because it would be handy if you ever had a bad drought like you’ve had in Texas,” Gaines says. “I have always been concerned going through a drought and having to sell cows, and I thought this would be good insurance, so I decided to go with it.”
Kentucky producers are not the only ones utilizing whiskey production. Producers in southern Tennessee are taking advantage of the popular Tennessee whiskey – Jack Daniels.
According to University of Tennessee Extension specialist Larry Moorehead, nearly 200 producers in the Lynchburg, Tennessee, area are feeding what they refer to as “spent stillage,” similar to bourbon whole stillage.
“We try to keep it within a 20-mile radius to the distillery,” Moorehead says. “You get much past that, the economics don’t work too well.”
Spent stillage is high in protein and fat, very similar to whole stillage, and it must be supplemented with hay or wheat straw to add fiber. Unlike the free stillage in Kentucky, it’s 50 cents to $1.50 per ton in Tennessee. But Moorehead explains if the operation is within 20 miles of the distillery, it’s a profitable way to feed.
“Cost is in transportation,” Moorehead says. “Their fuel bill is more than their feed bill.”
Jamie Hawley is a freelance writer based in Ohio. Email Jamie Hawley.