Every year, in early February, Iowa holds a special celebration of sorts. It has nothing to do with roses, nothing to do with presidents and certainly nothing to do with beads. Thousands descend on the fairgrounds in Des Moines to celebrate bacon. The Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, now in its fifth year, serves over 15,000 pieces of bacon during the one-day event. And while the revelers worship the crispy, salty goodness of bacon as they crunch into piece after piece, the true hero is dressed in pink.

Swine producers around the world have perfected the means by which this delicacy has tantalized our taste buds. Leaner muscles in pigs, perfected dietary formulas and superior genetics have led to improved pork products. And, with demand, comes increased prices at the marketplace and thus increased values for producers. With feed costs returning to normal levels, this year is shaping up to be a profitable one for producers, that is, for those not hit with porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus.

But even with the improving market dynamics, the need to optimize feed costs while improving feed safety -- especially in starter diets -- remains an industry imperative.

Alternative energy sources

As producers look to mitigate the impacts of PED virus, they are choosing to replace certain feed ingredients in their diets. One of those ingredients is choice white grease. Some nutritionists, including the Kansas State Applied Swine Nutrition team, recommend replacing choice white grease in swine diets with crude soybean oil. That move, however, comes with higher feed costs.

"Currently there is a lot of disagreement in the industry between researchers, suppliers and veterinarians about how much risk feed poses to the spread of PED virus," says Dr. Joel DeRouchey from Kansas State University. "The Pork Board and others are investing substantial resources to help assess this risk."

As producers move away from animal fats as a supplemental energy in their diets toward all-vegetable sources, they are weighing the advantages and disadvantages of utilizing alternative sources such as distillers corn oil (DCO).

The rise of distillers corn oil

The major adoption of corn oil removal from ethanol production facilities put close to 3 billion pounds of DCO into the marketplace in 2013. Of these 3 billion pounds, about 1 billion are used to produce biodiesel with approximately 96 biodiesel plants utilizing DCO as its primary or secondary feedstock. It is estimated that 1 billion pounds of DCO is going into feed and the remaining 1 billion pounds being produced today is either exported or used in industrial applications.

While the majority of DCO feed use today goes into layer and broiler feed, swine producers are increasing their interest in better understanding the impacts of utilizing DCO. Researchers currently are focusing on the impacts of increased unsaturated fatty acids, free fatty acids and the other impurities found in DCO.

But a new innovation is on the way that might change the use of DCO as a feed ingredient.

Next generation of DCO

Ethanol producers have found that greater value can be created for their DCO by further refining it. A patented system has been developed to further refine the DCO by reducing the free fatty acids from around 15 percent down to less than 1 percent. This further-refined DCO can be used as a replacement for soybean oil in swine starter diets and premixes, as well as other production systems that demand a highly refined vegetable oil as an energy ingredient. The benefit to swine producers is that this product is valued under the cost of crude soybean oil yet has very similar specifications.

"To produce a corn oil that has removed all of those limiting factors will provide a terrific option for an all-vegetable source of energy for swine producers," comments Joseph Riley, director of Corn Oil ONE.

This further-refined corn oil may be just the alternative that producers need to continue their momentum and reduce the risk of PED virus impacting their system. But, as most producers understand, there is never time to celebrate. That is unless you find yourself at Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival. In which case, you can grab a piece of bacon, check out the bacon queen and compete in the bacon-eating contest. But, most importantly, celebrate the true star of the event: the pigs and those producing them.