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Let them eat … what?

By Staff | Feb 4, 2013

CATTLE EAT FEED containing sawdust at Bob Batey’s property in rural Mount Pleasant. Batey’s veterinarian who is overseeing the heard’s health said the animals are in good health.

MOUNT PLEASANT (AP) – A Southeast Iowa farmer has come up with a surprising solution to the high cost of cattle feed.

Bob Batey, an 85-year-old Mount Pleasant area farmer, said his 50 cows devour the sawdust mixture he feeds them.

Batey said he stumbled upon the idea in the 1970s when he noticed cows eating sawdust that had washed into their pasture from a nearby paper mill.

Batey, who has a lumber mill on his farm, discovered a way to treat and cook sawdust that results in a digestible feed that cows find tasty.

Mixed with corn, vitamins, minerals and a few other ingredients, the mixture has a nutritional value equivalent to grass hay, Batey said.

A FRONT-END loader distributes feed to cattle eat feed at Bob Batey’s property in rural Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

“They like it. It’s good for them. It’s economical. And it’s green,” he said.

Veterinarian Tara Wellman-Gerdes, of West Point, confirmed Batey’s cows are healthy.

“They are a happy bunch of cattle,” she said of the herd of Angus and Charolais cows. Many are expecting calves in March.

Cows cannot digest untreated sawdust, which is about 50 percent cellulose and 30 percent lignin. Lignin wraps around cellulose in plants including trees, giving them rigidity and strength to stand tall.

Breaking the cellulose from the lignin is an important step in making the sawdust digestible for cows, said Stephanie Hansen, an assistant professor in the animal science department at Iowa State University

“You could potentially free up the cellulose, which has high food value,” she said.

Hansen said Batey’s process sounds like “a good example of how producers are getting creative in feeding their livestock” at a time when traditional feeds are expensive and in short supply.

Last year’s widespread drought, which continues to be a problem in much of the nation’s grain belt, created a shortage of corn and hay, causing livestock feed prices to jump.

Dan Loy, an ISU animal science professor, who tested sawdust as sheep feed 30 years ago at Penn State University, said he is skeptical.

“Based on my experience at Penn State, which found sawdust to have very low feed value, I doubt sawdust would contribute more than the bare minimum of nutrients,” Loy said.

But others see the potential.

Byron Leu, an ISU Extension regional beef specialist at Fairfield, said he was doubtful until he sat down with Batey and discussed the project. Leu said he and his colleagues are conducting similar experiments to break down the lignin and improve the digestibility of cornstalks.

“Not much grows out of the ground that cows won’t eat,” said Batey, who has been raising beef cows and calves since 1959.

He worked with Mike Kassmeyer of Quality Plus Feeds, in St. Paul, southeast of Mount Pleasant, to develop the sawdust mixture.

His cows eat about 30 pounds each per day.

“It’s a green way to raise cattle. You are basically recycling something that would otherwise go to waste,” said Kassmeyer, whose firm mixes the sawdust feed that Batey uses.

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