A protein-rich, low-cost, high-yield way to feed livestock could soon be competing with traditional row crops and forages.
Hemp’s lauded potential includes seed as feed, and while research is still in the early stages, experts in both the livestock and hemp sectors are optimistic.
The prospect was discussed Dec. 9 during the Pennsylvania Hemp Summit.
Before hemp can be used as a feed, it must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. After that the states would manage implementation.
Hemp seed and associated byproducts appear to be the most promising parts of the plant for livestock applications. The seeds don’t have measurable amounts of CBD and phytocannabinoids, which are undesirable feed ingredients.
“Hemp byproducts have a very legitimate nutritional basis for inclusion in animal feed,” said Erin Bubb, agronomic division chief with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “There’s a lot of excitement out there in the world of hemp and hemp byproducts that might soon be entering the marketplace for use in animal feed.”
Hunter Buffington, executive director of the Hemp Feed Coalition, said the animal care segment is expected to grow by 9.7% nationally over the next seven years, opening the door for hemp seed in livestock feed.
Seed can be fed as ground meal, an oil or a seed cake.
Producing 10 million tons of hemp seed cake, Buffington said, requires 30 million tons of seed. A Canadian study found that 1 acre of hemp produces 800 pounds of seeds.
“The grain material does have a high yield,” Buffington said, though he argued more data is needed. “There is a lot of emphasis on research right now. The research is pivotal to all of this.”
Some of that research is being done by The Wenger Group in Rheems, Pennsylvania, which is feeding hemp seed meal to laying hens. Studies in other states are looking at hemp seed as a feed for lambs, rabbits, horses and cattle, Bubb said.
In addition to offering hemp growers another market, the nutritional value of seed should catch the eye of dairy farmers.
Hemp seed contains 20-25% protein, while hemp seed cake or meal has a protein level between 30-40%, said Joe Bender, assistant professor of dairy production medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
The high fat content in whole hemp seed (30.4%) could impair rumen function, but the fat content drops to 10% when the seed is processed into cake or meal, Bender said.
The price tag is also appealing.
For a cow producing 90 pounds of milk daily, a farmer would spend $4.23 a day to feed the animal 5 pounds of hemp pellets with an estimated price of $100 per ton.
“If we can replace purchased feeds with homegrown hemp supplements, that’s a positive,” Bender said.
Pricing will also weigh into a grower’s decision to take acres away from corn, soybeans or alfalfa to raise hemp.
And if hemp is to compete with today’s high-performance feed grains and forages, the plant’s genetics will have to be improved.
“Do we really need a big, heavy stalk to hold the seed heads?” Bender said. “The ability of animals to eat other feeds continues to improve, and I think hemp can get on the same trajectory. The potential is there.”
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