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Turning a CBD farming byproduct into livestock feed

A closeup view of hemp.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife
A closeup view of hemp.

What happens if you feed cannabis to sheep? It’s a question that livestock scientists are actually wondering about at Oregon State University. They’re trying to develop a new animal feed market for industrial hemp. OPB science reporter Jes Burns recently joined JPR’s Liam Moriarty to explain what they’re up to.

Liam Moriarty: Hi, Jes, welcome back ... So explain to me; exactly what are these scientists doing?

Jes Burns: Well, these researchers at Oregon State are taking a hemp by-product — they call it "spent hemp biomass" — and seeing if it's appropriate to use as an animal feed. This byproduct is left over after the hemp is processed to make CBD oil. You got to kind of think of it like the grain mash left over after brewing beer or liquor, except his is just a bunch of leaves and stems of the hemp plant. One of the researchers involved, Serkan Ate s, told me what these hemp processors are facing.

Ates: Currently, all the hemp processed — spent hemp biomass — nobody know what to do with that material.

JB: So, if you could sell it as an animal feed, you could actually generate some money off of something that would have been just waste.

LM: That's interesting. So, how do scientists know if this stuff is good for the animals to eat?

JB: They've conducted feeding trials with sheep and dairy cows so far. And what they do in these trials is they substitute this spent hemp for alfalfa in their feed, in different quantities and for different amounts of times. And while they're doing this, they track how much the animals eat, how much they weigh, you know, how much weight they're gaining and a whole bunch of other health metrics. And then they also test whether any cannabinoids, like THC, are detectable in the animal's systems during and after they eat the hemp, supplemented feed.

LM: Okay, and what have they found?

JB: Well, nutritionally hemp is as good or better than alfalfa. The preliminary data for sheep is that initially, they don't like it. Like, the sheep just don't eat as much when you add hemp and they think it possibly could be because of the smell or the flavor. But then, after about four weeks, those sheep seem to really get a taste for it and they actually end up eating more feed every day and putting on a little more weight. The cows ate less of the hemp feed, but then they produce more milk, but also that milk had a lower energy content. So it's kind of mixed early results on the dairy side of things. But Ates told me that the hemp doesn't have to be better than alfalfa. It just has to perform similarly in order for it to be a suitable substitute, right? And at least for the sheep, it appears that it would be a good option.

LM: Why is there so much focus on finding new markets for hemp right now?

JB: Well, we saw what happened firsthand right in southern Oregon in 2018. The United States fully legalized hemp production. And then there was this huge rush to cash in in Oregon. That first year, more than 60,000 a cres were licensed with the state. And a lot of those acres were in the Rogue Valley and in Jackson and Josephine Counties But then, the market was flooded with product almost immediately. This year, the total number of acres licensed with the state, by comparison, is 7,000 acres. So over 60,000 to 7,000 acres. So, that's a huge drop. The thought is, opening up an animal feed market could help bring some stability to the industry.

LM: So, when does this hemp animal feed go on the market? When are farmers going to be able to start using this stuff?

JB: Yeah, not any time real soon. We're still a long way and the main issue is that it is technically illegal to feed it to animals intended for human consumption. The rub is the cannabinoids that I talked about earlier? The Food and Drug Administration is concerned that the THC will pass from the animals into humans and the FDA hasn't established with the acceptable limits for THC consumption. So, the researchers did detect cannabinoids in the lambs and in the milks. So, until the FDA provides the guidance or hemp breeders, can figure out how to fully breed out THC out of hemp plants, the market for hemp animal feed, at least in the United States, is going to remain closed.

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.