From beer to beef

From beer to beef

Finding feed from fermentation

If you’re a rancher and you haven’t already done so, visit your local microbrewery. That’s not shilling for brewers. It’s a business tip. The Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville feeds dozens of UF/IFAS cattle every time its crew makes a batch of Stump Knocker Pale Ale. Our cattle drink it out of Hol-steins. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

For two years, the IFAS Beef Teaching Unit in Gainesville has been supplementing its feed with the wet spent grains from one of our local microbreweries.

Here’s the way it works; The brewery makes daily batches of beer. One of the byproducts is spent grain, discarded after it has been used to produce a sweet liquid called wort. The wort is then boiled and transferred into a fermentation tank where yeast feeds on the sugars and turns the wort into beer. An IFAS employee brings a pickup truck to the loading dock, loads several 32-gallon Rubbermaid buckets filled with the grains, and drives it three miles back to the unit. It then gets mixed in with our forage as a nutritional supplement.

The best solutions address two or even three challenges at once, and that’s what we have here. In this simple transaction, we have multiple great results.

  • Economic development: By selling its waste, a small business converts a cost for waste disposal into a revenue stream. That gives a locally-owned startup a boost.
  • Environmental stewardship: IFAS’s purchase of the spent grain diverts several tons a week from the local landfill and instead puts it to use in support of beef production.
  • Fiscal prudence: Feed costs account for 44 percent of the operating budget at our Beef Teaching Unit, by far its largest expense. The competitive price we get on the spent grains has reduced our feed bill substantially.

Luke Kemper, who owns Swamp Head, calls it a no-brainer. The way he sees it, why would he throw something in a landfill that another business could use? Although it helps his bottom line, it’s certainly not what makes or breaks his business. One of his company’s core values is sustainability. Sending the grain to IFAS, Kemper says, is simply the right thing to do. I agree.

At the moment, we can take all the spent grains Swamp Head produces. We’re both small enough operations that we can adapt on the fly to production fluctuations. When we’re running low on feed, Swamp Head can brew an extra batch a day or two ahead of schedule. Conversely, when Swamp Head has a busy week, we’re able to take more than our usual supply. And our Brahmans don’t seem to mind whether we’re pouring the grains from a honey cream ale or an oatmeal coffee stout!

For a small rancher, this might only work if you have a brewery in your community. But the explosive growth of the craft beer industry means the chances are better and better that there’s someone near you looking to unload spent grains. According to the Brewers Association, 21 breweries opened in Florida in the past two years.

One thing you may have heard as you consider whether to belly up to the bar is that the Food and Drug Administration proposed increasing regulations on brewers’ marketing of grain to animal producers. But in September, the FDA announced updated rules that do not represent onerous overregulation and will not drive brewers to dump their spent grains in landfills, according to the beer industry’s national trade association.

Jesse Savell, an academic coordinator who runs the Beef Teaching Unit, recommends analyzing the spent grains for nutritional content and dry matter percentage before cutting a deal with a brewer. If the analysis yields good results, going with the grain from a local brewer might lower your feed costs and raise your profile as a recycler. Cheers.


story by JACK PAYNE

About the author: Jack Payne is the Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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