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Hemp feed for livestock: Great idea or horrible mistake?

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We’ve been using hemp for centuries for things like paper, rope, lotion, etc. Now, some people are using it for cows.

Though often confused with cannabis, hemp is actually a legal substance under the US Farm Bill since it contains less than 0.3 percent of the chemical THC. Typically, hemp has no psychoactive effects. It’s THC that, in larger amounts, gets people (and many animals) high.

Though little researched, many believe hemp-based feed could be a more economical, sustainable, and nutritional alternative to traditional food for livestock. It’s also giving some farmers new opportunities for income diversification.

But a study recently published in the journal “Nature Food” raised alarm bells around feeding hemp to livestock. Cows fed industrial hemp produced milk containing a concerning amount of THC. What’s more, those cows showed behavior changes that could indicate they were experiencing the psychoactive effects of the chemical. Dazed and confused, these cows appeared to be dizzy and tired, they salivated more than usual, and they even had red eyes.

In light of this research, a lot of people are wondering: Should we put a pause on feeding livestock hemp?

To help answer this question, we rolled up our sleeves and did some research. We looked at what we know and don’t know about feeding hemp to livestock, what the potential risks are, and why some people are using it despite those risks. Here’s what we found.

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Potential benefits of hemp feed

Hemp feed is a cheaper alternative to most animal feeds. It also gives farmers an opportunity to save money by repurposing the byproducts. The stem and leaves can be repurposed as animal bedding or transformed and sold for income diversification.

This is important, especially with the income volatility that many farmers face.

Hemp is also more sustainable than many feed options. It can be easily used as ground pellets, oil, or crushed seeds, and it enriches and fertilizes the soil and requires fewer pesticides and herbicides to maintain since the plant is very resilient. It can even be used as biofuel, providing an environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels.

In terms of nutrition for livestock, hemp is touted by many as a natural superfood. Though little researched, some experts claim that it’s easy for animals to digest and it can provide farm animals with more protein and fat than traditional animal feeds. Hemp also has the potential to improve animal performance and health due to its being rich in fatty acids, fiber, protein, and minerals.

Finally, hemp may be able to help livestock chill out. Just as CBD is often credited with anxiety-relieving effects, a federally-funded study from earlier this year showed that livestock fed industrial hemp had lower stress levels than those fed other types of feed, and that they lay down more. This is great not only for anxious cows, but also for farmers, since relaxed cows tend to be healthier overall.

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Risks of feeding livestock hemp

There’s no denying the potential benefits of hemp feed for livestock are exciting. But there’s a catch. Or really, a few catches.

As previously mentioned, a recent study showed that consuming hemp potentially leads to high levels of THC in milk, which could be passed to humans who consume it.

Cows in this study who were fed industrial hemp changed their behavior significantly. They yawned and salivated more, and they appeared to be uneasy on their feet. These observations put into question some previous research that indicated cows could not get high.

Another study suggested that a diet high in hemp can cause birth defects in cattle, but more research is needed to prove that definitively.

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Got hemp?

When it comes to hemp feed for livestock, the pros and cons are about as extreme as they come. Though there are many potential benefits to feeding hemp to livestock, there is very little research supporting them. And the risks we know about so far, which include getting your cows high, infusing milk with THC, and causing birth defects, are considerable.

If you’re determined to give your livestock hemp feed, proceed with extreme caution. There are many potential benefits, but if you start noticing signs that it is causing any of the aforementioned negative side effects, stop and consult a veterinarian immediately.