Hemp's Potential As Livestock Feed

The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp in the United States, and in doing so, allowed researchers and businesses opportunities to develop tens of thousands of hemp-based products. While some researchers, physicians, and patients contend that eating hemp may have health benefits, using hemp feed as a base for feeding livestock remains a highly contentious and debated topic.

There may be both financial and nutritional benefits of developing an industry around hemp-derived livestock feed; however, regulatory authorities worldwide see it as potentially hazardous despite research that may suggest otherwise.

Let’s explore why some in the nation’s agricultural sector is already investigating the possibility of hemp’s potential as a new and important source of livestock feed, the current legal roadblocks, and the promising research into the potential benefits of using hemp feed for livestock.

Studies into Hemp feed for Animals

In 2015, the Washington State Legislature made a move to allow studies to be conducted into the viability and safety of using hemp in livestock feed. In 2017, the Colorado State Senate followed suit, voting to pass a similar bill. And, currently, several academic studies on hemp’s potential as livestock feed are underway at universities around the United States.

Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) are investigating whether feeding spent hemp biomass to lambs will create cannabinoid residuals in their meat, and potentially affect animal health and performance, according to the Corvallis Advocate.

“Our long-term goal is to implement the safe use of hemp byproducts in livestock diets,” OSU researcher Massimo Bionaz wrote on his lab website. He continues “and take full advantage of their nutritional and potential medicinal properties to improve animal health and the quality of animal products.”

A two-person research team at Kansas State University received a $200,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, according to Phys.org. The researchers are investigating the concentrations of cannabinoids in the milk, meat, and edible tissues of livestock fed industrial hemp. 

Michael Kleinhenz, assistant professor at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and co-researcher on the feed study, believes “hemp plants and plant parts could be an attractive feed commodity for bovines.”

Internationally, A Swedish study conducted on cattle showed increased milk yields in dairy cows with higher partial hemp cake diets than a typical-diet fed control group.

Potential Nutritional Benefits

Hempseed and hempseed products are known superfoods and have received a GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe status). Hemp seeds are high in fatty acids, such as Omega 3, Omega 6, Omega 9, and GLA, and has the ideal 3:1 ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids. It is also very high in proteins, containing all nine essential amino acids. Hemp seeds are also high in fiber, helping with digestion and providing forage. It is also a good source of minerals, such as copper, iron, boron, zinc, manganese, nitrogen, and zinc.

The Legality of Feeding Livestock Hemp feed

Hemp feed is currently not legal for either domestic pets or livestock animals in the United States. However, it is not technically illegal either but rests in a legal grey area waiting to be championed through the approval process by the FDA-Center for Veterinary Medicine.

As the Hemp Feed Coalition notes on its website, “the pathway to ingredient approval for hemp and its byproducts is time consuming and complicated.”

According to the group, there are two different ways that hemp ingredients for livestock feed can gain approval from the federal government. One is through a New Ingredient Definition via AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), a voluntary organization of local, state, and federal agencies. There is also the submission of a Feed Additive Petition directly to the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM).

While some farmers, livestock producers, and many pet and horse owners are privately choosing to use hemp in their animal feed as a nutritional component or supplement, market demand will encourage the Departments of Agriculture and producers to take action while Federal approval works its way through the system.