Robert Thornberg has parlayed his knowledge of operating ethanol plants into a growing business built on the fuel-additive’s byproducts.
In the 1980s, while managing an ethanol plant near Walhalla, N.D, in the scenic Pembina Gorge, Thornberg began taking note of area resident’s talk about the high quality of beef cows that were fed distilled grains ‚Äì leftovers from the plant’s ethanol-making process.
Thornberg investigated further and learned that research bears out what local residents long have said.
Distilled grains are a healthy dietary supplement for livestock, said Vern Anderson an animal scientist at the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center in Carrington, N.D.
Starches contained in feed grains can reduce the efficiency of microbes that help livestock break down their food. But corn and other grains used to make ethanol are stripped of their starches, yet they remain rich in proteins, fiber and fats, Anderson said.
Research at NDSU and elsewhere has shown that distilled grains are a “more nutrient-dense feed,” he said.
NDSU uses distilled grains from ethanol plants to supplement the feed for its cattle and bison, Anderson said.
Fermented corn, barley, and other grains are rich in yeast and enzymes that help cattle and horses absorb and use more of the vitamins, proteins and minerals in their grains, Thornberg said.
For cattle and horse owners, improved feed efficiencies mean healthier animals and higher profits, he said.
“We heard of instances of remarkable feed performance and I saw a great opportunity if that performance could be duplicated, he said.
With the research in hand, Thornberg left the ethanol plant in 1988 to create SweetPro Feeds, a company that uses distilled grains to produce premium livestock feed supplements.
Today, Thornberg’s company, with production plants in Walhalla and Horton, Kan., employ 17 people and distributes its feed supplements throughout the nation. SweetPro also exports its feed supplements to Canada, and is working with the North Dakota Trade Office and the U.S. Commercial Service to identify and expand into other foreign markets.
“We realized that we had something very different – very unique,” Thornberg said. “Our sales are growing, but we have a lot more opportunity.”
SweetPro produces a variety of feed medleys of distilled corn, oats and barley and other grains that are tailored for varying dietary needs.
The company’s products include a 250-pound lick block for cattle and EquiPride, an increasingly popular digestive-aid supplement for all classes of horses. SweetPro’s lick blocks are fortified with vitamins and minerals to supplement lower-quality hay, straw and other feeds.
EquiPride is sold in 25-pound pails and comes with a hand scoop to mix the supplement with bulk feed rations. The horse supplement is the fastest growing product for SweetPro, accounting for about 20 percent of the company’s current sales, Thornberg said.
Thornberg expects the product to account for 50 percent of his business within two years and 80 percent of sales within four years.
The horse supplement is sold by distributors throughout the United States and carried in stores including Home of Economy and Mills Fleet Farm.
Customers are reporting that their horses have improved hair coat and healthier hooves since beginning a diet that includes EquiPride. The supplement’s calcium and magnesium components also reportedly are quelling gastric conditions, Thornberg said.
“It took me quite a while to accept that we developed a break-through product,” he said. “But we continue to get this dramatic feedback.”
Count J.D. Blondin, a lifelong horse breeder and past president of the American Quarter Horse Association, among a growing number of EquiPride users.
Blondin, of Moon Lake Equine Center in Elm Grove, La., has been breeding stallions for 41 years, raising more than 300 grand champions and winning every national stock show. He also has served eight years on the Louisiana State Racing Commission.
Blondin said he began using EquiPride to supplement the feed of Walk Thru Fire, a stallion of royal bred that has sired some of the country’s most successful race horses.
The horse breeder said he tried many feed products in hopes of increasing Walk Thru Fire’s fertility without results until he began feeding the nation’s top-rated quarter horse rations mixed with EquiPride.
After two months on an EquiPride regimen, Walk Thru Fire’s fertility increased four-fold, Blondin said.
In August, Walk Thru Fire was sold after fertility test results showed the horse is an excellent breeder. Now Blondin has all the stallions, mares, colts, filly’s and show yearlings at Moon Lake using EquiPride.
Blondin said he also credits EquiPride with giving his horses a healthier, shinny coat and turning finicky horses into better eaters.
“It’s a reflection of the horses overall health,” he said. “We’ve tried a lot of different products, additives and what not, but nothing has given us results like this.”