Agricultural by-product inspires creation of yet another by-product

David Fettig | Managing Editor

Published July 1, 1991  | July 1991 issue

Bob Thornberg, president of SweetPro in Walhalla, N.D., is on the cutting edge of agriculture these days. Not only has he developed a new agricultural by-product—a high-protein feed supplement for livestock—but he developed the feed from another ag by-product—ethanol.

Thornberg got his idea while managing the ethanol plant in Walhalla. Ethanol is produced by using the starch from corn and grains; when the starch is removed, it leaves protein-rich grains that are then fed to livestock. But, Thornberg wondered, why not mix that high-protein grain with vitamins and minerals and create a power-packed feed supplement? So he did.

"It was a classic case of taking a lemon and making lemonade," Thornberg says. "Left-over solubles are a headache in most plants. We thought we'd take advantage of what would normally be a limitation."

But going from idea to product was no easy matter. He created the concept for his feed supplement in 1986, and two years later he had his product successfully tested in the feed lots of North Dakota State University. Convincing potential investors also took some time, and eventually Thornberg secured loans from private investors, a Walhalla bank and through a special program at the Bank of North Dakota.

Finally, in December 1990, SweetPro, with three full-time employees, began production at its Walhalla facility. First-year sales of the feed product, which is packed in a plastic barrel and weighs 250 pounds, are expected to exceed $500,000, Thornberg says.

So far, Thornberg says the market response to his new product is good, and—especially since Walhalla is located near the Canadian border—he hopes to tap into the northern market.

Even though Thornberg's idea took four years to turn into a product, he says he was always hopeful that one day he would have his own company. "You know you've got a good product, and you know you just have to implement a plan," he says. "But when you're out there yourself, those little things that happen to big companies become major problems to a start-up company."

Aside from keeping cattle healthy, supplements are popular with farmers and ranchers because the blocks of feed, which cattle lick to absorb the protein, are especially helpful for producing milk in pregnant animals. The additional protein from the supplements also aids in conception during breeding.