Flaxseed: A superfood for cattle, too

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Flax earned its reputation as a superfood — for people — thanks mainly to its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s get credit for doing all kinds of good things for human health: protecting against heart disease and cancer, and benefitting joints, skin, vision, brain function and cholesterol levels. Fish such as salmon and tuna are usually where consumers turn for their omega-3s, but beef is now entering the ring, too.

Over the last 10 years, Kansas State University has been experimenting with feeding flaxseed to cattle in the months before slaughter, according to a story posted on NPR’s food blog, The Salt. According to Jim Drouillard, a professor of animal sciences at Kansas State University, the study was initially meant to help calves avoid BRD: Could flax benefit cattle health in some of the same ways it does people? Among the results, they found reduced inflammation and less need for antibiotics in the flax-fed cattle.

Those were important benefits, and along the lines of what researchers expected to see, but they have also been finding other unexpected bonuses may come from feeding flaxseed. These include improved marbling in those cattle as well as increased omega-3 levels in their beef, both of which might translate to increased carcass value for producers. Some producers are stepping in to take advantage of that possibility. One is a Kansas company called NBO3 Technologies, which is selling a ground beef product called GreatO, “the first and only USDA-labeled and certified beef product naturally-abundant inOmega-3 fatty acids,” according to its website.

Another company, called Timber Ridge, is selling omega-3-enriched beef sticks, summer sausage and jerky products online. Its website explains the choice to market only those products: “We choose the smoked meat process to deliver our high Omega-3 beef to the consumer because of its  use of low heat. Exposure to high heat will covert healthy fats into trans-fats.”

The flax regime for his cattle, Timber Ridge owner Peter Woltz told NPR, means using it for about 8 percent of their feed for the last 100 days before slaughter. He said he had been surprised to find how much healthier those cows are than those that don’t receive flax.

Meanwhile, Kansas State is continuing with its flax studies in an effort to answer other questions. How might feeding flax affect implanting practices? What is the optimal feeding strategy for finishing cattle? They are also investigating the best ways to process flax before feeding it to cattle.

Other flax-feeding trials include one at Oregon State University, in which dairy cows fed flaxseed produced more nutritious milk. Their milk contained increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of saturated fat, the study found. Animal science researchers in Europe are working  with dairy cows to determine whether feeding flaxseed could improve digestive health and reduce their methane emissions.

Clearly, many questions about feeding flax to cattle remain, one of the big ones being the economics of it for producers — flax does not make inexpensive cattle feed. Producers selling omega-3-enhanced beef will be closely watched to see how those economic questions are answered.

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Aimee Hachigian-Gould    
Ulm, Montana  |  July, 10, 2013 at 04:10 PM

We have been feeding flax to our cattle for over 10 years, based on the research of Dr. Greg Lardy at North Dakota State University and the recommendations of Dr.John Paterson at Montana State University. We have seen all of the health advantages stated in the article in our own cowherd and feedlot, along with improved marbling. Our locker beef customers swear the addition of the flax in our rations has added an ethereal element of taste that has contributed to the Umami quality of our beef that is generally missing in commodity beef. Flax is now a critical element in our herd health and feedlot program-we are believers in its considerable advantages.

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