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USDA connects wet distiller's grain with E. coli in cattle

WILLMAR -- The recent and phenomenal expansion of the ethanol industry is creating a huge demand for corn. According to the latest forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the ethanol industry will utilize 4.95 billion bushels of corn during the current crop year, which represents about 40 percent of last year's corn crop.

However, those bushels are not entirely utilized by the ethanol industry. Once the starch within the corn kernel has been extracted, about 17 pounds or 30 percent of a bushel of corn is left.

Most of what remains from the ethanol production process is referred to as wet distiller's grain. This valuable byproduct is rich in protein, calories and minerals, and is commonly used as a cattle feed ingredient.

Since 2007, wet distiller's grains have been the subject of a number of studies by researchers from USDA's Agricultural Research Service. The purpose of the studies was to investigate the relationship between the use of wet distiller's grain in feed, and the incidence and persistence of E. coli 0157:H7 in cattle manure and on the animals' hides.

In early experiments with 608 steers, researchers found that the incidence and prevalence of E. coli 0157:H7 in manure, and the incidence on hides, was significantly higher for cattle whose corn-based feed included a 40 percent mix of wet distiller's grain when compared with those whose feed did not include the ethanol byproduct.

In follow-up studies, researchers want to determine what causes the difference in E. coli levels, and what can be done to reduce its incidence.

Cattle are a natural reservoir for E. coli 0157:H7, which is apparently harmless to them, but can cause illness in humans. If in manure, the microbe can end up on animals' hides, and subsequently contaminate meat and equipment at the packinghouse.

The research conducted by USDA was funded in part by the Beef Checkoff, a promotion and research program funded by U.S. beef producers and importers.

Drainage activity could nullify eligibility for program benefits

This spring, farmers may have discovered areas in fields where additional drainage is needed, or where an existing tile line is in need of repair.

Farmers should remember that the wetland compliance or "swampbusting" provisions initiated by the 1985 farm bill remain in effect under the 2008 farm bill.

Before starting any drainage activity, farmers and farmland owners should be sure that their drainage project will not make them ineligible for federal farm program benefits. To assure eligibility, farmers will want to review their proposed drainage or land clearing activity with a representative of USDA's Natural Resources and Conservation Service before any earthwork begins.

In accordance with the 1985 farm bill, producers who after Dec. 25, 2005, convert a wetland to allow the production of an agricultural commodity are ineligible for federal farm program benefits until the converted wetland is mitigated or restored.

Farmers and farmland owners who would like USDA officials to review their drainage project will need to visit their local Farm Service Agency office.

Over a period of 200 years, the lower 48 states have lost an estimated 53 percent of their original wetlands, and 87 percent of the wetland losses from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s were the result of conversions for agricultural purposes.

The wetland provisions of the 1985 farm bill have sharply reduced wetland conversions for agricultural purposes. Before 1985, approximately 235,000 acres of wetland were being converted every year. But during the years of 1992 through 1997, the amount of wetlands being converted for agricultural purposes was reduced to approximately 27,000 acres per year.

USDA surveying farmers this month

During the first two weeks of June, USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service will survey hundreds of farmers across Minnesota to get a clear indication of the production and supply of major commodities for the year.

The information provided will be compiled into two publically accessible reports, which will maintain confidentiality of individual survey respondents.

From two major mid-year surveys, the June Agricultural Survey and the June Area Survey, USDA will obtain information for several key national reports, including the annual Acreage Report and the Quarterly Grain Stocks Report, both scheduled for release on June 30.

For the Agricultural Survey, USDA will contact producers by mail, phone or personal visit. Farmers will be asked to provide information regarding the number of acres planted to specific commodities, including biotech varieties, and the amount of grain that remains in storage.

For the Area Survey, USDA will visit randomly selected tracts of land and interview the operator of that land. Information will be collected regarding crop acreage, grain stocks, livestock inventories, cash rents, land values and the value of agricultural sales.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.