The newest trend in ethanol plant construction is to build in cattle country. Ethanol companies have realized it's cheaper to ship in grain to feed the ethanol plant than to dry distillers' grain or ship it wet to areas with heavy cattle populations.

In southwestern Kansas, that means cornfields could soon displace alfalfa circles.

Six ethanol plants that produce 135.4 million gallons have recently been built in Kansas. At least three others are in various stages of planning. The largest of the proposed plants will be built in Kearney County.

It'll be the first Kansas plant to be built in the heart of feedlot country. That has some in the hay business worried. Others, however, look forward to wringing out the excess alfalfa acres.

The 14 counties of southwestern Kansas are home to more than 2 million beef cattle and 61,600 dairy cows, according to USDA figures. The area also produces 1.08 million tons of alfalfa. Roughly 50-60% of the dairy-quality alfalfa and 40-50% of the feedlot hay are shipped out of state, says Steve Hessman, an analyst with USDA and the Kansas Department of Agriculture in Dodge City.

The Kearney County plant is expected to have an ethanol capacity of 40 million gallons a year. According to calculations provided by County Commissioner Shannon McCormick, the resulting wet distillers' grain will provide the equivalent feed volume of 70 circles, or 61,000 tons, of hay.

McCormick is the owner of Alfalfa Analytical Laboratories in Lakin and one of three commissioners who oversee the Kearney County Community Development Committee. The committee is studying the proposed plant's economic impact on the local economy.

“The growing trend of locating ethanol plants in Kansas will certainly reduce the state's alfalfa acreage,” says McCormick.

But whether that helps or hurts southwestern Kansas alfalfa growers remains to be seen. Local growers who now rotate row crops with alfalfa are expected to shift entirely into grains when the new plant comes on line.

While distillers' grain is an excellent cattle feed, it has typically been thought of as an energy and protein source. But it also has very digestible fiber.

Allen Trenkle, Iowa State University beef nutritionist, says the NDF of distillers' grain is about 40% on a dry matter basis, compared with less than 10% for corn and about 50-60% for alfalfa.

The problem with using distillers' as a major forage source for beef or dairy, he says, is its small particle size.

“We don't know for sure if the fiber in distillers' grain will replace the fiber in low-quality forages, but we might be able to replace some portion of it,” Trenkle says.

In particular, it might replace some of the chopped hay that many feedlots use.