Determination of the microbial community in the rumen and fecal matter of lactating dairy cows fed on reduced-fat dried distillers grains with solubles.

Ruminants, like sheep, goats, cows, deer, moose, etc.,  have a four-chambered stomach, the largest of which is called the rumen.  The rumen houses symbiotic microorganisms which break down plant fibers that the animal can’t digest on its own.  It’s estimated that up to 80% of a ruminant’s energy need is met from the volatile fatty acids (also called short-chain fatty acids) that bacteria produce from digesting fiber, and that up to 85% of a ruminant’s protein need is met from microbial proteins.

A lot of factors can be manipulated to help get the most out of one’s diet, including the source and processing method of the ingredients – in most cases in livestock feed: plants. Growing plants for animal feed can be expensive, and often nutrients in plants become more available to the animal after the plant has been processed/broken down in some way. This sometimes allows for food byproducts to be reused for animal feed, and one common example is used brewers’ grains. Once the grains have been fermented to produce alcohol, the simple sugars have been used up but a lot of the complex sugar carbohydrates – in other words: fiber – are left over. Ruminants don’t need simple sugars, but they do need a lot of fiber, and brewers’ grains have been investigated for their usefulness for animal nutrition because they are a cheap, readily-available, and common source of fiber, as well as protein.

The original experiment for this work took place several years ago, and involved an animal feeding trial which added reduced-fat distillers’ grains with solubles into dairy cattle feed. The research team found no negatives effect on milk production or animal health, and that work was previously published. To add to that project, the original research team wanted to know if the diet would drastically change the bacterial community living in the rumen, which would have implications for feed digestion and animal health.

A collaborator of mine donated the cow microbial community DNA data to my AVS 590 special topics in DNA Sequencing Data Analysis course in spring 2020 (now formally registered as AVS 454/554). I worked with UMaine graduate students Adwoa Dankwa and Usha Humagain over the semester to train them in coding and develop the manuscript. The diet only had minimal effects on the bacterial community profiles, which in this case is a good finding – we want to be able to feed a cheap, nutritional source like distillers’ grains without harming the cow or its microbes.

Dankwa, A.S., U. Humagain, S.L. Ishaq, C.J. Yeoman, S. Clark , D.C. Beitz, and E. D. Testroet. 2021. Determination of the microbial community in the rumen and fecal matter of lactating dairy cows fed on reduced-fat dried distillers grains with solubles. Animal 15(7):100281.


Reduced-fat dried distillers’ grains with solubles (RF-DDGS) is a co-product of ethanol production and contains less fat than traditional distillers’ grains. The fat in corn is ~ 91% unsaturated, and it is toxic to rumen microorganisms so it could influence the composition of the rumen microbiome. It has been demonstrated that RF-DDGS is a suitable ration ingredient to support the high-producing dairy cow, and this feedstuff is a promising alternative protein source for lactating dairy cows. The current study aims to better understand the effect of RF-DDGS on the rumen and fecal bacterial composition in lactating dairy cows. Thirty-six multiparous (2 or 3), mid-lactation Holstein cows (BW = 680 ± 11 kg; 106 ± 27 DIM) were randomly assigned to two groups which were fed a control diet made up of corn, corn silage, and alfalfa hay supplemented with expeller soybean meal or with added RF-DDGS (20% of the dry matter (DM)) containing approximately 6.0% fat. Whole rumen contents (rumen fluid and digesta; esophageal tubing method) and feces (free catch method) were collected on day 35 of the experimental period, after the 14-d acclimation period. Rumen contents and feces from each cow were used for DNA extraction. The bacterial community composition in rumen and fecal samples was assessed via the 16S rRNA gene by using the Illumina MiSeq sequencing platform. Bacteroidetes, Actinobacteria, and Firmicutes were the most abundant phyla in rumen contents. The fecal microbiota was dominated by the phyla Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, as well as Actinobacteria and Chloroflexi. RF-DGGS increased bacterial richness, evenness, and Shannon diversity in both rumen and fecal samples and was associated with several taxa that had different abundance in treatment versus control comparisons.  The RF-DGGS, however, did not significantly alter the bacterial community in the rumen or feces. In general, these findings demonstrated that dietary inclusion of RF-DDGS did not impose any serious short-term (within 30 days) health or production consequences, as would be expected. With this study, we present further evidence that inclusion of 20% (DM basis) RF-DDGS in the diet of lactating dairy cows can be done without consequence on the microbiome of the rumen.


Reduced-fat dried distillers’ grains with solubles is a quality, economical, and readily available protein source demonstrated to support the protein needs of high-producing dairy cows. In this study, the rumen and fecal bacterial communities of lactating dairy cows were not significantly influenced by 20% (dry matter basis) reduced-fat dried distillers’ grains with solubles and did not impose serious short-term (within 30 days) health or production consequences. This diet could potentially be introduced into Total Mixed Ration feeding of dairy cattle given the fact that it is readily available and relatively economical.

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