Livestock feed takes advantage of everything from coproducts to cookies

Holly Jessen
for The Fence Post
Cattle are great upcyclers, turning products that would otherwise be wasted into beef for human consumption.
Photo by National Cattlemen’s Beef Association/Baxter Communications

What happens with cracked cookies, stale bagels or lumpy sprinkles that are not up to human consumption standards? They are often redirected as feed sources for the livestock industry, benefiting both food and livestock producers.

“You could put all that in a landfill or you could use it,” said Karla Wilke, cow, calf stocker management for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scotsbluff, Neb.

The Beef Checkoff Program calls it upcycling as about 90 percent of what cattle eat can’t be eaten by humans. In other words, products that would otherwise be wasted can be turned into beef for human consumption.

Although coproducts such as distillers grains, brewers grains, corn gluten feed and soybean meal are more commonly known components of livestock feed, there are many other examples. “There’s literally hundreds,” said Galen Erickson, professor of ruminant nutrition and animal science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Depending on what is available regionally, livestock producers can make use of pea pulp, beet tops, cotton seed meal and potato peelings, to name a few. Keeping in mind their different dietary requirements, dairy cattle, pigs, chickens and other livestock can also utilize some of the same feed ingredients.

Shawn Archibeque, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, mentioned leftover carrot created when manufacturers shave down regular sized carrots into baby carrots. “Those peelings and shavings are perfectly nutritious,” he said. “But the average human consumer wouldn’t like the flavor or texture so they end up in animal feed.”


In California, there’s a proposed law working its way through the state legislature that has caused some alarm because it could result in certain food waste byproducts ending up in landfills, rather than being available for animal feed use. Introduced by California Assembly Member Ian Calderon, the Aug. 11 hearing for bill 2959 was canceled and it won’t be taken up again this year as the last day for each house to pass bills is Aug. 31.

The bill seeks to allow local jurisdictions to decide if food waste from grocery stores, restaurants and other retail food establishments could be included in local solid waste franchise agreements and whether or not those materials could be used as animal feed, according to the bill analysis. Frank Mitloehner, a professor at the University of California, Davis, said in a press release that, if passed, it could have a devastating impact. “The bill will take away a valuable opportunity to upcycle organic waste for animal feed and keep it out of the landfill, where it will release methane,” he said. “We can’t throw blame at our farmers and producers for impacting warming, while taking away an opportunity for them to do their part.”

Feeding waste products from restaurants or grocery stores is a great way to use up items not fit for human consumption, Erickson said. It’s a win for livestock producers, giving them access to an inexpensive product that has nutritional value as part of the feed ration. For the company offloading food waste, the amount paid by the livestock producer may at least cover delivery costs rather than the company paying to have it sent to a landfill. “That seems like a poor use of those ingredients,” he said.

There are plenty of examples of livestock producers taking advantage of waste food as animal feed, Archibeque said. Yellow grease, or leftover fry oil, has a lot of nutritional value left in it after it outlives its usefulness at a restaurant. Bakery waste from grocery stores or restaurants, such as expired, stale or damaged pastries or tortilla chips, can be ground up and fed to livestock. “There’s nothing wrong with those items,” he said. “It’s just the flavor profile doesn’t match with consumer desires.”

Finding opportunities to utilize food waste depends on location and the size of the animal operation, Archibeque said. Is the producer located nearby a larger city with a good supply of waste food? Although he wasn’t sure if it was currently happening, he told of a hog producer who received food waste from buffets and casinos. It was reheated before it was fed to the animals, he said.

Wilke mentioned a seasonal food waste opportunity. Livestock can be fed bruised or broken pumpkins, which consumers aren’t as interested in buying after Halloween.

Another potential inexpensive animal feed source is from food manufacturing facilities with products that are expired, damaged or not processed properly. A cattle producer in Texas fed livestock cookies, mixed in with roughage, she said. Erickson had a similar story about a Nebraska cattle producer who was able to score expired Wrigley’s gum.

The key is that, as with any animal feed ingredient, it has to be utilized judicially, Archibeque said. Waste cupcake sprinkles or chocolate are perfectly acceptable as livestock feed because the sugar is a good source of energy. However, it only works if it’s one component of the animal’s diet balanced with other feed ingredients to provide things like fiber and protein. ❖

— Jessen is a freelance writer living in Minnesota with her nurse husband and daughter. They recently settled down after more than three years living a travel lifestyle, thanks to her husband’s travel nurse job. She can be reached at