Nebraska Extension offers tips for replacing distillers grain in cattle diets

cows eating grass
April 24, 2020

Lincoln, Neb. — A national slowdown in the production of ethanol as a result of COVID-19 has led to shorter supplies of distillers grain. 

 A co-product of ethanol production, distillers grain is used in both wet and dry form by many cattle producers as an energy and protein supplement or to replace corn and protein in feedyards.  

Nebraska Extension’s beef systems educators have some tips for cattle producers looking to replace all or a portion of distillers grain in their animals’ diet while it is in short supply:  

  • Producers who used wet or modified distillers should add water if replacing distillers grain with dry ingredients if no other liquid or wet feeds are available
  • In terms of forages to use, corn silage is likely the best substitution for distillers grain, as it adds moisture and is the most economical roughage source, but it must be stored correctly. Alfalfa is an excellent roughage source, but very expensive and dry. If a producer only has low-quality forage (like cornstalks, straw or poor hay), then mixing and adding moisture is even more critical. 
  • When possible, it is recommended that producers cut back on the distillers grain in their animals’ diet instead of replacing completely. 
  • If distillers are completely eliminated from an animal’s diet, producers should consider adding urea in their normal protein/mineral supplement they purchase. Urea can be provided through liquid or dry supplements, and is now required in feedlots if distillers grain is not available. In feedlot diets, between 1 and 1.5% of an animal’s diet should be made up of urea (less is required in forage diets), which may be a large proportion of the purchased supplement. Urea can be toxic if fed above 2%, and requires diligence when mixing so that sorting doesn’t occur. Incorporating wet feed into an animal’s diet can help lower the risk of sorting.
  • Urea is riskier to use in forage diets and in some cases, may be unnecessary. Forages are naturally higher in protein used in the rumen (termed rumen degradable protein or RDP), and sorting is a greater concern in forage diets. In general, urea supplementation can be very useful in some forage diets, but needs to be fine-tuned.
  • Even though urea can be utilized, the cattle may still be short on protein, particularly the protein that bypasses the rumen for use by the cattle (termed rumen undegradable protein or RUP).
  • Other protein feeds that may provide some of this RUP if needed, particularly in younger calves and rapidly growing cattle, are soybean meal, field peas, and other less common protein meals. These all vary in suitability to offset distillers. No other economical source of protein provides as much RUP as distillers though, so it is hard to replace in some cattle growing situations.
  • Once a producer realizes they are short on distillers grain, they should begin gradually replacing distillers in their animals’ diet with the alternatives mentioned above in order to decrease the risk of bloat from acidosis. 
  • Local feed alternatives may still be available, including dry distillers or dry gluten feeds, wet gluten feed, or other liquid byproducts. 
  • Now is a good time for feedyards to seek professional help as diet choices are certainly more complex with less supply (and higher price) of distillers grains.

More information for cattle producers can be found online at Producers with specific questions on cattle nutrition can find a beef systems extension educator in their area at


By Galen Erickson | Nebraska Extension

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