TexasTech professor helps bring new wave to feeding industry
By Marlena Hartz | AVALANCHE-JOURNAL
Texas Tech Horn professor Michael Galyean, left, checks a cow at the Tech farm feedlot.
The machine's steel bars, built like a Venus flytrap, clenched the steer, holding him still on a chilly morning so a team of Texas Tech researchers could accurately measure his weight.
The steer - tagged number 737 - is a resident of the university's farm in New Deal. At about 9-months-old, he weighs 733 pounds, according to this massive scale, commonly referred to as a "squeezer."
Later this month, the steer will begin a new diet, consuming ethanol by-products called wet distillers grains.
Here in the Panhandle, the ethanol industry is burgeoning and fresh distillers grains from the ethanol-making process are a sudden feed option for farmers and ranchers.
"The benefit of having these (ethanol plants) in our backyard is ... the ability to use some of these distillers grains, which will hopefully reduce the cost of our rations," said Ben Weinheimer, vice president of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association.
But knowing exactly how much fresh distillers grain to feed livestock and how it affects their health is still a guessing game for regional feed lot owners, who have turned to Texas scientists for answers.
One of those scientists is Michael Galyean, a distinguished animal science professor at Tech. He and his students will monitor the weight-gain of No. 737 and some 200 other cattle to be fed an even mixture of wet corn and sorghum distillers grains.
"There's a lot of issues with distillers grains," said Galyean, from his office on campus.
"But we've got it and we are going to have it," he said, "so we have to figure out how to best use it."
The number of planned and operating ethanol plants in the state jumped from zero to 10 practically overnight with seven refineries to be clustered in the Panhandle, according to the state Energy Conservation Office.
Two of the new refineries are functioning in Levelland and Hereford; another is supposed to open in Plainview in the next two weeks. Others are expected to begin production this year or are under construction, according to the conservation office.
Collectively, they will have the capacity to produce more than 600 million gallons of ethanol per year, and thousands of pounds of distillers grains.
State lawmakers in the last legislative session gave Texas A&M $850,000 to study the grains, and the money has been passed on to Galyean and other scientists, Galyean said.
Dry distillers grains are not wholly unfamiliar to regional cattle feeders. Some ship in the dried by-products from Midwestern ethanol plants, Weinheimer said. But the still-wet distillers grains that will likely come from Pandhandle ethanol plants are much trickier to handle.
The wet grain has a short shelf life, molding and drying quickly in the West Texas heat, said Galyean, who stores the pungent grain in long, white bags at the university's farm in New Deal.
He grabbed a handful of molasses-colored sorghum distillers grain from a bag at the farm. It fit in his palm like a ball of clay. A few stray granules clung to his fingertips.
Wet distillers grains, he explained, are about two-thirds water. Gauging the grains' nutritional value to livestock, therefore, can be difficult, he said.
"Water can really mess you up is what is boils down to," he said.
"Texas cattle feeders and others really wanted (research) done locally, under our conditions so that people could see ... how it works," he said.
Distillers grains are cheaper than corn and sorghum. But calculating the actual cost savings can be tricky, too, Galyean said.
"If you get equal performance, then there's a cost savings," Galyean said. "If you don't get equal performance, how much less equal performance becomes very important. It is pretty critical we get good numbers on how the cattle perform on diets of distillers grain."
Galyean's spring study could take up to eight months to complete, he said.
And then, there's the other part of the story - the possible environmental consequences of feeding livestock these grains, which Galyean is also studying.
The boiled-down grains contain much higher concentrations than the corn or sorghum grains they replace.
Those higher concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur could be a problem, Galyean said.
Livestock that are fed the distillers grains consume the concentrated chemicals, which wind up in their manure. Then, the manure is used to fertilize crops and the chemicals inside could potentially pollute water and food supplies, Galyean said.
What impact this could have on human and animal health, if any, is largely unknown, he said.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done," he said.