Grain for gain

By Vicki Hyatt | Mar 07, 2014
Tests are in progress at the Mountain Research Station to determine how beef cattle fed with brewer's grain perform.

Livestock producers could get as much of a kick out of the craft breweries as the many beer-lovers in the area.

One of the main by-products of making beer is the leftover grain, a product that appears to be as nutritional as the original product.

While the spent barley and other cereal grains used in brewing beer have long been used on dairy farms, there has been scant research on how well beef cattle perform on the feed, said Philipe Moriel, an associate professor at N.C. State University and the livestock specialist who works out of the Waynesville facility.

The test, started several weeks ago, consists of 18 heifers and 24 steers. Half of each group is being given a feed supplement of corn, cottonseed and other proteins, along with the brewers grain, while the other half are being fed with an equal amount of only brewers grain. All steers are being fed at a rate of 1 percent of their body weight, while the heifers get a ration that is .5 percent of their body weight.

This test, which will wrap up in about a month, will measure whether the animals on brewers grain gain as well as those on a traditional ration, but blood tests on the heifers will gauge whether feeding brewers grain to heifers will delay the onset of puberty, something undesirable if they are being kept for herd replacement.

While the pairing of livestock production and brewing beer sounds like a perfect union, there are obstacles.

“This product is very wet,” Moriel said, “which makes it difficult to handle.”

When the weather is too cold, the grain can freeze slightly, and when it is too hot, it can quickly mold.

Those able to use large amounts of the grain quickly can get it by the semi-load where it has been loaded into an “ag bag,” an expandable plastic covering that is about 10 feet in diameter and can hold 20 tons.

Brewery to farm

L.T. Ward, vice president of WNC Communities, spearheaded an effort to investigate how spent grain from the growing number of craft and microbreweries in the region could benefit the regional livestock industry. Eventually, the WNC Brewer’s Grain Alliance was formed and the plan is to create a distribution system to transport the brewers grain from the breweries to the farms.

“We started under a misconception it would be free feed,” Ward said, noting many of the microbreweries had been hauling the byproduct to the landfill. “But there is quite a market for the brewers grain. There are several feed companies that would love to be able to move the product out of the area — and will pay handsomely for it.”

The largest supplies of brewers grain will come from the Sierra Nevada brewery in Mills River, which is now in production, and the New Belgium brewery planned in Asheville’s River Arts District, which is scheduled to open in 2015.

Sierra Nevada has made arrangements for their the Mills River brewers grain to be handled by a feed company they work with in other locations, Ward said, but the WNC Brewer’s Grain Alliance has a memorandum of understanding with New Belgium.

When the alliance first formed, feed prices were at $50 a ton. The hope was that brewers grain could be delivered in the region for about $40 a ton, a projection that is proving accurate.

Large dairies which use a lot of feed — and where brewers grain has a proven record of success — are the logical buyers because the herd is fed year around and around the clock, but any operation capable of using grain relatively quickly and where a semi can unload and turn around can benefit from the alliance, Ward said.

The alliance is applying for grants so smaller trucks can be bought to meet the needs of smaller producers.

“If we’re successful in delivering brewers grain at lower than market cost, it will reduce cost of production, hopefully extra profit will be plowed back into herd and herd will increase. There’s no doubt this will have an economic impact,” Ward said.