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Study Seeks Out Whether or Not Hemp Can Be Used as Animal Feed

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It’s no secret that the cannabidiol (CBD) industry is booming. Products are being sold across major retailers and innovative business owners are putting the cannabinoid in practically everything.

However, this booming market is also creating a lot of compostable waste. In order to get a product like CBD oil, it must be extracted from the hemp plant. This extraction process often leaves behind a lot of plant material that currently has no value.

With that in mind, one group of researchers from the Oregon State University (OSU) questions whether or not it can be used as animal feed.

“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 animals,” said Serkan Ates, who teaches in the Animal and Rangeland Science Department at OSU.

The researchers are looking to feed a number of different animals, from sheep to dairy cows to poultry. Their main concern is how using hemp as animal feed might affect an animal’s growth, health and behavior, and whether or not tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) will have any impact on the animals’ system.

“I don’t know that the fiber – or the post-extracted biomass—is the most valuable part of the plant,” Jacob Crabtree, CEO of Columbia Hemp Trading Company, told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “But when you look at a sustainable marketplace and not wasting any part of this plant and getting the most value out of it, you absolutely have to look at those markets.”

The need for a sustainable feeding source comes at a time when the CBD market is leveling out. When initially legalized back in 2018, there was a lot of growth. But since then, much of the CBD “green rush” has plateaued.

“I think during the 2019 season, it felt like a gold rush,” said Gordon Jones, a member of OSU’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever watch such a fast change in agricultural land use again from a cop that was previously prohibited.”

Is All This Extra Material Profitable?

In 2019, 64,000 acres were licensed to grow hemp by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Though not all of that was planted, enough was to leave plenty of back-up due to flooded markets and bad weather towards the end of the season.

“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,” said Jones. “I talk to other growers who point to the compost pile and tell me that’s where their 2019 crop went.”

This downfall in Oregon’s hemp production can be observed when only 27,500 acres were licensed the following year. This is part of the reason there’s so much interest in using hemp biomass as animal feed – in order to substitute all that unused material.

“I might sell spent hemp biomass for less than five cents a pound,” notes Crabtree. “But the market that it’s going into—the animal feed market—is a massive, massive, massive market internationally.”

In terms of chemical composition, hemp has been found to have more protein and fat than alfalfa – another common animal feed. However, preliminary reports from the study have shown mixed results.

On one hand, the sheep given hemp biomass had slight improvements in body weight and appetite compared to a group of sheep given alfalfa. But when it came to the health metrics, there were different outcomes depending on the animal.

For example, dairy cows that were given feed containing 15 percent hemp ate less during this period. However, they also produced more milk with slightly reduced fat.

Currently, the researchers are trying to determine how much of a percentage is suitable for each animal. The goal is to reduce the cost of animal feed for farm owners while sustainably reusing an often forgotten product of the hemp industry.

The Concern of THC

When it comes to developing hemp biomass for animal feed, the biggest concern is THC. As of this time, the federally legal limit on THC is 0.3 percent. If the hemp biomass were to be more than that, it would be illegal.

Luckily, research shows that most of the biomass contains four times less than the legal limit (about 0.7 percent total THC). Still, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has its concerns.

“[The FDA] doesn’t have any guidance in what is called the ‘tolerable dose intake,” which is the total amount of whatever compound you can eat per day without consequences,” said Massimo Bionaz, co-investigator on the research.

In tests done through the research, THC levels were found in lambs and the milk of cows. However, the levels were so small they were practically insignificant. Still, whether these levels are insignificant or not is ultimately up to the FDA.

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