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What happens when you feed sheep cannabis?
It’s a question you might expect from someone who uses cannabinoids rather than studying them.
But researchers in Oregon are asking this question – particularly about hemp – to unlock its potential as a useful crop.
The hemp industry in Oregon currently produces two main products of cannabidiol, or CBD: oil and a more specialized smokable flower. Growers who operate in the CBD oil market often hire processors to extract the oil from the hemp. This process leaves behind large amounts of plant material. And right now this biomass has little value.
“Nobody knows what to do with this material…. So if you’re just using it as animal feed, it really becomes a cheap source of additional feed for the animals, ”said Serkan Ates, who teaches at Oregon State University’s Department of Animal and Pasture Science.
A close up of hemp.
US fish and wildlife
OSU scientists, who work with the school’s Global Hemp Innovation Center, are investigating whether this depleted hemp biomass can be used to feed sheep, dairy cows and poultry.
“We see that there is great potential so far,” said Ates.
In recent years his team has carried out research experiments in which hemp was replaced by varying amounts of animal feed in lambs and cows. They test the effects of this hemp on animal growth, health, and behavior, as well as whether THC remains in the animals’ systems.
“The material is available. We have lots of cattle in Oregon, lots of dairy farms. Not that many sheep, but we still have sheep. So technically we should be able to feed this material to these cattle, ”said Ates.
The answers they find could open a new market for an industry that has got off to a bumpy start.
“I don’t know if the fiber – or the post-extracted biomass – is the most valuable part of the plant,” said Jacob Crabtree, CEO of Oregon-based Columbia Hemp Trading Company. “But if you are looking at a sustainable market and not wasting any part of that facility and getting the maximum benefit from it, you absolutely have to look at these markets.”
After the United States fully legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp in 2018, Oregon farmers and processors stepped in with both feet. But they quickly found that the pool was cold and much shallower than expected.
Hemp wasn’t the agricultural xanadu that many thought it was.
“I think the 2019 season felt like a gold rush. I’m not sure I will ever see such a rapid change in agricultural land use from a previously forbidden culture again, ”said Gordon Jones, who works with cannabis growers as part of his position at OSU’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center at Central Point .
Thousands of hectares across the country have been converted to hemp production. Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley had some of the highest concentrations of hemp in the county. Pear plantations were cleared early on, hay production was replaced, and fallow fields were suddenly rowed in the black plastic that is so often used to grow hemp.
In 2019, approximately 64,000 acres were licensed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture (although not all of it was necessarily planted). But at the end of the season the weather turned bad in some areas and ruined much of the harvest. Even so, the markets as a whole were flooded with hemp.
“I still speak to growers who have their 2019 harvest in their barns either in large containers of shredded dry biomass waiting to be extracted, or barrels or containers of extracted cannabinoid, CBD, waiting and looking for markets,” said Jones called. “I speak to other growers who point to the compost heap and tell me that their 2019 harvest stayed there.”
FILE – In this April 23, 2018 file photo, Trevor Eubanks, manager of Big Top Farms, prepares a field for another hemp crop near Sisters, Ore.
Don Ryan / AP
In 2020, Oregon licensed acres decreased to approximately 27,500. This year it’s closer to 7,000.
There is volatility in the industry and growers are looking for stabilization so they can get an idea of how big hemp could be.
The development of a secondary market could add to this stability.
“I could sell used hemp biomass for less than five cents a pound. But the market it is entering, the animal feed market, is a huge, huge, huge market internationally, “said Crabtree, the hemp company’s CEO.
Do sheep get the nibbles?
On the surface, used hemp biomass is a high quality animal feed, with as much protein and more fat than alfalfa, another commonly used animal feed.
“If you look at the chemical composition, the biomass from spent hemp is better than alfalfa in most cases,” said Ates.
In order to test the quality and effectiveness of hemp feed in sheep, the OSU scientists replaced alfalfa in different quantities and for different durations with hemp. Sheep received either 10% or 20% hemp for either four or eight weeks.
Compared to the control, preliminary results show that the hemp performed well. After eight weeks, the hemp-fed sheep mostly ate more than the alfalfa group, with slight improvements in body weight. The hemp also showed different effects – some potentially positive and others somewhat puzzling – on the health metrics that are important to ranchers.
For the dairy cows, the researchers fed the cows with 15% hemp for four weeks. The cows ate less during and immediately afterwards. Even so, the first data showed that they produced more milk, but with a slightly lower fat content.
And at the American Chemical Society’s Fall 2021 meeting, the researchers reported that “10% (hemp biomass consumed) can be absorbed into the diet of ruminants in lambs without adversely affecting performance with a possible positive effect on feed intake.”
Before researchers can draw a full conclusion on whether hemp is indeed a more efficient feed, more analysis is needed.
In this photo from May 19, 2015, a bag of shredded hemp on its way to pulp, paper and other products lies on a table in Pure Vision Technology, a biomass factory in Ft. Lupton, Colorado.
Brennan Linsley / AP
“But even if it’s not more efficient … the important part is: can we replace alfalfa or any type of conventional feed with used hemp biomass? If we can do that, you can cut feed costs, ”said Ates.
In early 2022, the researchers will test hemp as a feed for poultry.
That pesky THC
Despite the positive results, hemp farmers and ranchers cannot simply start using depleted hemp biomass in animal feed.
“The thing is the THC levels – whether or not the FDA approves feeding hemp to animals at the end of the day. If they do that, I’m sure we can feed this to animals, ”said Ates.
THC is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis – the stuff that gets you high.
The hemp plant is the same type as marijuana. But the uses of the plants and how they are regulated vary widely. Legally grown hemp contains less than 0.3% THC. According to data from Columbia Hemp Trading Company, there is four times less than the amount of hemp biomass consumed (0.07% total THC).
Still, the US Food and Drug Administration has concerns that this THC will pass from animals to humans when lamb or milk is consumed.
“The FDA … has no guidance or what is known as the ‘tolerable dose intake’ … that’s the total amount of each compound you can eat per day without consequences,” said Massimo Bionaz of the OSU, co-investigator on the research.
THC was recorded in the lambs’ livers and in the milk of hemp-fed cows – but the levels were very small.
“Given the data we’ve got so far, yes, there is cannabinoid. Does that matter to humans? I don’t think so, ”said Bionaz. “However, the FDA decides, not us.”