Sep. 1, 1999 LUBBOCK – Somewhere between the littoral tidal zones (the coastline between high and low tides) in the North Atlantic Ocean – where seaweed grows deep and plentiful – and the usually dry flat plains of Texas – where cattle roam looking for greener pasture – nature holds a secret that could connect the two regions in a valuable way.
Several initial research projects conducted by Texas Tech, in conjunction with Mississippi State University and Virginia Tech, show that cattle that grazed forage treated with seaweed extract, or directly-fed seaweed meal and extract to cattle and swine, has marked positive effects on animals’ immune function, weight gains, carcass quality and even the shelf-life of finished meats.
Lead researchers include Vivien G. Allen, Ph.D., Thornton distinguished professor of forages in the department of plant and soil science, and Kevin Pond, Ph.D., chairman of the department of animal science and food technology.
“We found that by applying a specific seaweed, Ascophyllum nodosum, in an extract to the pasture or forage animals would be grazing – or by directly feeding the extract or the seaweed meal to animals – that their immune system, or their ability to fight diseases, is enhanced,” said Pond. “The effects of seaweed seen in the finished beef product also include a more desirable color, improved uniformity, decreased browning and less discoloration of the meat.”
Allen explained the initial problem with cattle begins when the animals ingest a fungus- infected grass that is prevalent in cattle grazing. “Tall fescue is the most important perennial cool-season grass grown in the United States, occupying more than 35 million acres. Producers can winter animals on it and minimize hay feeding. It has spread enormously,” Allen said.
“The fescue provides the fungus with a home and food, and the fungus provides the plant with stress tolerance and insect resistance. It is a much more durable plant because of the fungus,” Allen explained. “But it is a very bad thing from the animals’ perspective. Fescue toxicity results in lowered animal performance, poor hair coats, elevated temperature and lowered immune function.”
The economic losses that infected fescue has on the beef, swine and dairy industries is an enormous problem. Estimated losses to the beef industry alone due to fescue toxicity exceed $600 million annually. “What we see is that the seaweed treatment has reversed some of the toxic effects of the infected fescue,” Allen said.
Pond said that seaweed treatment can increase the marbling and the quality grade of the beef. Quality grade is prime, choice or select. “The quality grade appears to go up about a half a grade in animals that have been seaweed-treated,” Pond said. This translates into better beef, a benefit to both producers and consumers.
Pond said the seaweed treatment also increases the shelf-life of the finished beef. Once the animal has been processed, and the steaks are sent to the grocery store, there is a certain shelf-life a steak is going to have for consumer purchasing. Even a day extra can allow that steak to be on the shelf at steak prices rather than being ground and sold much cheaper. These modifications in quality grading and shelf life could make about a $2 billion difference in the industry in this region.
According to Pond, the economics of the seaweed treatment also is encouraging. “It’s exciting that we’re only feeding this material to cattle once, for a short period, either by spraying it on a pasture that they consume or by feeding the meal for a short time while they’re in a feed yard, and they don’t get it again in their life. With one treatment we’re seeing good results.”
The seaweed research also could prove lucrative for Texas Tech. Pond said the university has applied for a patent for feeding use for improved immunity and carcass characteristics for mammals and poultry. Texas Tech also has applied for a patent for the increased shelf-life properties of the seaweed treatment.
The research also could be applied to other species. A trial recently has started with horses. Heidi Brady, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of Texas Tech’s Ranch Horse program, is looking to see if seaweed treatment will improve the weaning stress and immune system function of horses.
Ultimately, Allen and Pond would like to see this research benefit the human species. “I see it having possible applications in immuno-compromised groups. We don’t know right now, but the possibilities are there,” Allen said.
Kevin Pond, Ph.D., chairman, animal science and food technology department, (806) 742-2513 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Vivien G. Allen, Ph.D., Thornton Distinguished Professor of Forages, plant and soil science department, (806) 742-1625 or by e-mail at email@example.com
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