Have you ever thought about feeding cannabis to livestock? Me either, until I read the headlines. Researchers are are asking the same question to unlock the potential for cash crop.
Currently in Oregon, the hemp industry produces two main cannabidiol products. One being CBD oil and the other being a more-specialized smokable flower. Growers in the industry will often hire processors to extract the oil from the hemp. This process results in a large amount of plant material being left behind, and as of right now, that has very little value. “Nobody knows what to do with that material… . So if you just utilize this as an animal feed, it’s going to really be a cheap source of another feed for the animals,’ said Serkan Ates, who teaches in theAnimal and Rangeland Sciences Department at Oregon State University (OPD).
Scientists at Oregon State University are working with the school’s Global Hemp Innovation Center to discover if the hemp biomass can be used to feed sheep, dairy cows and other poultry. “We see that there’s a big potential so far,” Ates said. Over the past few years, teams have been conducting various research surrounding substituting different amounts of animal feed for hemp in lambs and cows. The are testing the impact hemp may have on growth, behavior and health of the animals. Furthermore, they are also testing to see how much and if any THC stays in the animals’ systems. Potentially, the answers they conclude from this research could open a new market for the industry.
Back in 2018 when the United States passed the Farm Bill, growers in Oregon quickly got to work. Thousands of acres in Oregon were converted to hemp production across the state. The Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon had some of the highest concentrations of hemp growing in the county. In 2019, about 64,000 acres were licensed with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Sadly, by the end of the season the weather had changed ruining much of the crop. By this time, the markets overall were flooded with hemp. “I still talk to growers who, in their barns, have their 2019 crop either in big totes of chopped up dry biomass waiting for extraction or they’ve got barrels or containers of extracted cannabinoid, CBD, waiting and looking for markets,” Jones said. “I talk to other growers who point to the compost pile and tell me that’s where their 2019 crop went (OPD).
It is worth noting that in 2020, licensed acres in Oregon dropped to about 27,500. This year in 2021, that number is closer to 7,000. It appears that growers are looking for stabilization and hemp could be just that by developing a secondary market for the leftover biomass.
Spent-hemp biomass is considered a high-quality animal feed that contains as much protein and actually more fat than alfalfa. “When you look at the chemical composition perspective, actually spent-hemp biomass, in most cases, is better than alfalfa,” Ates says. During studies on sheep, the OSU scientists substituted hemp for alfalfa in various amounts and for different allotted times. The sheep were fed 10% or 20% hemp for either four or eight weeks. The results stated the hemp performed well in the early results. After eight weeks, the sheep that were fed hemp were found to be eating more than the group that was only given alfalfa. There were slight improvements in body weight. During the studies on dairy cows, scientists fed the cows 15% hemp for four weeks. The results stated the cows ate less during this time and immediately when the study was finished. Surprisingly, the early data showed the dairy cows produced more milk but with a slightly lower fat content. More studies will take place in early 2022.
Even with the positive results, hemp growers cannot start feeding livestock the spent-hemp biomass just yet. There is still the concern from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that THC will/ can pass from the animals to humans milk is consumed.