If you’re practicing small-scale agriculture, then you’re sure to be on the lookout for ways to economize on your feed costs while keeping your animals productive and healthy. Whether planting forage crops in unused space or tossing kitchen scraps out to the livestock, you’ve probably already got some systems in place to recycle “waste” back into production. Here’s another source you may want to consider, one that is not only often available free but also provides excellent nutrition: brewer’s waste.
Brewer’s waste, also known as brewer’s grain or spent grain, is a byproduct of the brewing process. Beer begins with a mash of barley (and sometimes other grains) and hot water, which after an hour or so of enzymatic activity, converts the grain’s starch into sugar and is then drained and rinsed to extract that sugar. That’s what the brewer wants: sugar, which is the starting place for fermentation. Left behind are the starchy endosperm, residual protein and whatever residual sugars the brewer couldn’t rinse away. These protein- and fiber-rich leftovers are excellent feed for everything from cows to chickens.
Calculating a Ration
Optimum use of brewer’s waste in a feed ration varies by animal, lifecycle phase and even by purpose. Ruminants love the fiber content, and the low-degradability protein is excellent for dairy cattle in production. Pigs, goats, sheep, rabbits and poultry all benefit from a moderate quantity in their diet.
If you’re considering using brewer’s waste as a regular, substantial percentage of your animal’s feed (between 20 to 40 percent), you’ll want to consider the nutritional aspects carefully. A good internationally accepted overview is provided by Feedipedia. But for the typical homesteader or small-scale farmer, regardless of the animal, intermittently supplementing a regular mixed feed ration with a few buckets from your own brews or a local brewery is going to be a great nutritional supplement and a joy to your animals.
For our chickens and ducks, my homebrew sessions are a treat: Scratching and pecking and gobbling away, they delight in the pile of warm grains that ends up dumped in their run. Consequently, their enthusiasm shows me how well my brewing has gone: The more excited the animals are, the more sugar was left on the grains and the weaker my beer is going to turn out to be. So let’s just say I like to see them a little happy, but not too delighted.
If you homebrew, getting grains is easy, but in many cases, local breweries or homebrew clubs may supply spent grains at no charge. One brewery in my hometown is happy to supply grains on a bring-your-own-bucket basis if you show up at the end of a brew day when they’ve got a load of grain to dispose of. Call around and see what sort of arrangements you can make—with the growing popularity of craft beer, microbreweries and now nano-breweries are springing up all over. Many larger-scale breweries probably already have arrangements with local farmers or feed suppliers, but because even a small brewery can produce waste grain by the ton, there’s always plenty to go around.
A Word of Caution
No matter where you get it, make sure you’re getting fresh brewer’s waste and using it quickly. Guidelines typically recommend using wet waste within three days, but my personal experience is that after even 36 hours, I can smell the aroma of wild fermentation beginning. Certainly don’t let the grains sit around any longer than two or three days.
I’ll usually dump my brewer’s waste the morning after a brew session—long enough that the 170-degree-F grains have had time to cool to a safe temperature but well before any fermentation or spoilage has taken place. In the winter, I might accelerate that process and dump the grains right onto the floor of the coop just a couple hours after I finish to help our birds stay warm overnight.
If you’re producing silage, brewer’s waste can be an excellent component, where it’ll last six months or more. Be sure the grains have cooled well before ensiling, and for best results, mix them with a dry component, such as dried forage, other dry wastes or un-mashed grains. Beyond animal feed, brewer’s waste makes an excellent nitrogen-rich component in any sort of composting system. With our modified deep-litter chicken coop, whatever the birds don’t eat ends up mulching down and ending up on our garden beds within a few months.
Brewer’s waste is a great resource for any small agricultural enterprise that has animals. With the rising popularity of both homebrewing and small-scale commercial brewing, it is a plentiful, affordable source of high-quality feed. And if you aren’t already brewing yourself, give it a try: it’s a fun, productive hobby and a great component to any homestead!
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