Happy cows stay healthier and produce better meat and dairy. Stressed cows (like stressed humans) suffer from weight loss, weakened immune systems, digestive problems, reduced appetites and reduced reproductive capacity. Meaning, cattle farmers have good reasons to invest in the happiness of their bovines.
Recent research from Kansas State University (KSU) may have identified a new means for farmers to achieve that for their cattle. A means that’s almost as obvious as it could be revolutionary.
“Hemp may be a natural way to decrease stress and inflammation related to production practices,” Michael Kleinhenz says.
Kleinhenz is a researcher and assistant professor of beef production medicine at KSU. His lab focuses on pain management and stress mitigation for livestock, and he was curious how industrial hemp could be used within that context.
The feds were curious too. In 2020, the Department of Agriculture (DOA) granted Kleinherz’ research team $200,000 to investigate whether feeding hemp to livestock was safe or if it would result in unacceptable levels of cannabinoids in animal products (meaning any level).
Hemp is the non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana. It likewise produces cannabinoids like CBD, CBGA and CBDA, molecules gaining popularity for their medicinal qualities—reducing pain, aiding sleep, and, of course, relieving anxiety.
No one had ever experimented with using hemp as a feed supplement for cattle before, so Kleinhenz stepped up to the plate. With the DOA grant money, he and his team set out to answer the question: Does feeding hemp to beef and dairy cows result in contaminated products?
For the study, Kleinhenz and his team used 16 Holstein steers, half of which ate regular (control) feed while the other half got a healthy dose of high CBDA hemp. CBDA has a similar molecular structure to anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, and is anecdotally even more effective at treating inflammation, insomnia, epilepsy, nausea and anxiety than CBD.
The KSU team of researchers observed the cattle for two straight weeks, tracking the cows’ movements and taking blood samples to monitor biomarkers for stress like cortisol and prostaglandins. Not only did they find that feeding hemp to cows doesn’t permanently contaminate the meat or dairy they produce, but they unexpectedly discovered that doing so actually improves their health.
“Cattle in the HEMP group demonstrated an 8.8% reduction in prostaglandin E2 concentrations from baseline compared to a 10.2% increase from baseline observed in the [control] group,” the study’s abstract reads. It also notes that the hemp-eating cows spent more time lying down, which improves cows’ health and actually makes dairy cows more productive.
“These results suggest that feeding [industrial hemp] with a high CBDA content for 14 days increases lying behavior and decreases biomarkers of stress and inflammation in cattle,” the abstract concludes.
“We didn’t think we would see [stress reduction] to the degree of what we saw,” Kleinhenz says. “We most definitely didn’t expect to see any differences in the lying behavior . . . and the anti-inflammatory component was a kind of a surprise to us as well.”
Kleinhenz is excited about the implications of this research. This discovery could help farmers reduce anxiety levels during stressful times in the cattle’s lives—like during transportation or weaning, when the cows are separated from their mothers. If hemp can be fed to cattle ahead of these events, Kleinhenz is hopeful that it could significantly improve their overall health.
But is it an ethical way of addressing the problem? Could it enable inhumane cattle operations to continue mishandling their animals?
“Number one, I unfortunately work with too many producers that I could see where that could be the effect. But I think those people in our industry are going away, ” Kleinhenz says. “Number two . . . you can’t feed enough hemp to a cow to make up for a poor diet or substandard housing conditions.”
People can (and will) argue those points until the cows come home. But the fact remains, Kleinhenz’ research indicates a useful tool for cattle farmers to make cows less stressed. Something that isn’t pharmaceutical or technological.
“We wanted to be able to maybe provide something that would be a little more natural for producers to use to reduce stress,” he says. “We did make big steps in that [regard].”
There is a lot more research that needs to be done on this topic, though, Kleinhenz notes.
“When do we need to actually start applying these things to reach the maximum benefit? Is it just a one off thing or do [cows] need to be fed a handful of days before that stressful event? How much [hemp] is good? Are we going to reach a point where we could see some detrimental effects?”
Obviously, a lot of questions linger. But Kleinhenz and his team are already planning follow-up studies to answer them.