WNC Brewer’s Grain Alliance: Preparing for Western N.C.’s sudsy future

by | Feb 19, 2014

Cows at the Mountain  Research Station in Waynesville eating spent grains as part of a feeding trial.  "It looks like oatmeal, and smells a little like it too," said Kaleb Rathbone, research operations manager.

Cows at the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville eat spent grains as part of a feeding trial. “It looks like oatmeal, and smells a little like it, too,” said Kaleb Rathbone, research operations manager.

The craft beer industry is booming in the mountains of North Carolina, as evidenced by the expansion and addition of three major craft brewers: Sierra Nevada in Mills River, Oskar Blues in Brevard and New Belgium in Asheville. Cows may not be the customers the breweries had in mind; but spent grains, a byproduct of the brewing process, could help feed more cattle in the western part of the state.

Spent grains are the byproduct when brewers extract the sugar from malt to make beer. These grains are full of fiber, protein and carbohydrates, and the brewing process produces a lot of them. According to the WNC Brewer’s Grain Alliance, the major breweries are producing around 664 tons per week, and this number is growing.

“Farmers can supplement a portion of a cow’s diet with spent grains,” said Bill Yarborough, special assistant with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “With three major craft breweries coming to the area, we have the possibility of feeding up to 20,000 head of cattle.”

The breweries produce huge amounts of spent grains, and area farmers are eager for a local source of feed for the cattle. “If the breweries don’t have some place lined up to take their spent grains, it stops their whole business model,” Yarborough said. “The grains must be used within 48 hours, unless it is dried or put in bags, because it will start to mold. I’ve seen them giving it to the cows still steaming from the brewery.”

WNC Communities, an organization that supports community development and agricultural initiatives across a 20-county region, created the WNC Brewer’s Grain Alliance to help connect farmers with the growing supply of spent grain. “Currently we have about 50 farmers or producers in the alliance serving about 8,000 to 10,000 cattle,” said L.T. Ward, vice president of WNC Communities. “The best thing we can do to support breweries and farmers is to find a way to connect the two as cheaply as we can, while keeping it local and benefiting the brewery.”

The intent of the alliance is to deliver the grains at a lower-than-market cost. Currently, they are offering the grains about 15 to 20 percent cheaper than average market cost. Spent grains are already about 15 to 20 percent cheaper than alternative feed sources.

Ward sees this readily available source of feed contributing to an increase in the cattle industry. “There is a high demand in the beef market right now and we see many farmers retaining their heifers for breeding instead of feed stock,” he said. “This points to farmers feeling comfortable growing the size of their herds.”

The WNC Brewer’s Grain Alliance was awarded $20,000 from the TVA Ag & Forestry Fund to help establish itself as an entity that will work with local breweries, area livestock producers, transportation providers, researchers and others to match the supply of wet grains to the demand for lower-cost feed. New Belgium also contributed $10,000 to help the alliance get started.

“Our main goal is to be a local connection between these breweries and farmers,” Ward said.
The alliance is currently working under a memorandum of understanding with New Belgium to pick up its spent grains and transport them to local farmers. The alliance is working to build relationships with the other breweries as well. “Once the breweries are at full capacity, the alliance should be able to help connect 80 to 100 farmers and 16,000 cattle with grains,” Ward said.

While working with farmers may be a central goal of the WNC Brewer’s Grain Alliance, it is also working with N.C. State University and the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville on spent-grain research trials.

“Last year we had about 60 tons of spent grain delivered,” said Kaleb Rathbone, research operations manager at the Mountain Research Station. “The grain was used in feed storage trials and feed efficiency trials at the station.”

The feeding trials include steers and heifers and researches feed efficiency and weight gain. The station is also using an agricultural-feed bagger to store the grain and then blend it with other feeds such as hay as a way to increase shelf-life and feed quality.