New university research has shown that a substantial portion of the grain in cattle feed can be replaced with corn stover that has been treated with a common food ingredient known as hydrated lime or pickling lime.

Feeding treated stover could improve beef producers’ financial returns by lowering input costs without impacting the animals’ physical development, say Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) officials.

“With the world’s food and energy needs growing, the implications of these findings could be quite significant,” says Mike Baroni, the company’s vice president of economic policy. “Global agriculture needs to produce more using less water, fertilizer and other inputs, and without bringing vast amounts of new land into production. Using crop residues and co-products, rather than higher-value grains, to help feed animals could enable the world to make more of the global harvest and help agriculture expand to meet all needs.”

In cattle-feeding trials, adding hydrated lime to corn stover rendered the plant material sufficiently digestible to constitute up to 25% of cattle rations after the treated stover was combined with wet distillers grains and solubles, says Baroni. ADM is a leading supplier of distillers grains to the livestock industry.

Hydrated lime, or calcium hydroxide, is used in a variety of food applications, from pickling and preserving fruits and vegetables to adding calcium to fruit juices and baby formulas. It is formed by mixing water with calcium oxide derived from limestone.

“These trials demonstrate that cattle feeders can implement alternative feed strategies today to improve their returns,” says Mike Cecava, ADM’s director of feed technology. “ADM’s goal is to begin working with industry partners and university Extension programs to help speed adoption by interested cattle feeders.”

The treatment process involves combining ground or chopped stover with the hydrated lime solution, then storing the treated stover in an oxygen-free container – typically a silage bag or bunker – for at least a week. A 1,200-lb stover bale can be treated with approximately 50 lbs of calcium hydroxide. The solution loosens the chemical bonds between the stover’s lignin and its more digestible components. That enables natural enzymes in the cattle’s rumen to effectively digest the stover. The same treatment process can make wheat straw digestible to ruminants as well.

In a six-month Iowa State University trial involving 210 steers, the treatment enabled scientists to cut the percentage of grain in animals’ rations by half – from 70% to 35% – without impacting the animals’ growth or development. Stover, distillers grains and supplements made up the remaining 20, 40 and 5% of the ration’s dry weight, respectively. Use of the treated-stover rations resulted in a profit per steer of up to $119, say the ADM officials.

A similar 140-day University of Nebraska study involving 330 steers showed equal success, they add. Both the studies were funded by ADM; similar trials supported by the company are under way at other universities, including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois and Purdue University.

Baroni notes that ADM, Deere & Co. and Monsanto are collaborating on economically and environmentally responsible methods for collecting, transporting and processing stover on an industrial scale. “In the meantime,” he says, “the on-farm method offers a way for ranchers and feedlot operators to begin making more of this crop residue today.”

Cattle feeders interested in participating in further feeding trials with stover should contact Cecava at mike.cecava@adm.com.