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K-State Study: Flax Improves Calves' Health, Enhances Beef

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Flaxseed, already considered a shining star for human health, may soon find favor in the cattle industry.

Current research at Kansas State University is providing increasing evidence that adding flaxseed to cattle diets dramatically improves carcass value, strengthens the calf's natural immunities and may enhance the fatty acid profile of beef.

Flaxseed - also called flax - is an oilseed that contains omega-3 oils, often called "the good fats" because in human nutrition they've been found to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

It's also rich in lignans (or phytoestrogens that help prevent breast, endometrium and prostate cancers); and both soluble and insoluble fiber (which lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and protect against colon cancer).

K-State's animal studies include several projects in which researchers have improved the health of calves by feeding them a flaxseed diet for 35 to 42 days after they arrive in the feedlot. In a separate study, researchers are feeding flaxseed to cattle for 70 to 120 days before slaughter, which creates a value-added beef product enriched with omega-3 fatty acids.

Similar to its use in human food products, flax can be added to cattle diets either ground or as a processed oil. It is grown primarily in North Dakota and Canada.

Jim Drouillard, an animal scientist with K-State Research and Extension, said the university's study was developed initially to find a way to help stressed calves ward off the sometimes-fatal symptoms of bovine respiratory disease (BRD), a lung ailment in post-weaning cattle that costs the industry approximately $800 million a year.

Gram-negative bacteria are the most damaging pathogens in BRD, causing elevated body temperatures and inflammation in cattle that leads to irreversible damage to lung tissues. Evidence in humans suggests that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids can reduce inflammation.

"That's what sparked our interest," Drouillard said." And, we found that the inflammation that normally occurs with BRD was partially suppressed when we fed flaxseed."

Specifically in calves, flax diets slow the production of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-a), an inflammatory substance produced in excess with many inflammatory diseases. The result is that calves' immunities are stronger, and they may require fewer antibiotics.

While those are findings the K-State researchers may have anticipated, they did not expect other benefits now coming to light. Two in particular - improved marbling in consumer beef products and increased carcass value - likely mean more money for the cattle producer.

"Those are unexpected results, but they have repeated themselves [in subsequent feeding trials]," Drouillard said.

Marbling is the intramuscular fat - or "flecks" of fat - that appear within muscle. Marbling is the primary factor used to determine quality grades for meat, such as 'Prime,' 'Choice,' or 'Select.'

Drouillard said the greatest benefits to cattle occurred when flaxseed made up 10 percent of the diet, and when flax is added during the first 5-6 weeks (30 to 42 days) after calves arrive in the feedlot.

When fed to finishing cattle (70 to 120 days before slaughter), the omega-3 fats contained in flaxseed are deposited into muscle tissues, which enriches the consumer product. The K-State researchers also are testing the benefit of adding vitamin E - an antioxidant - to the flaxseed diet, which improves shelf life of consumer meat. Simply for consumers, the value-added product not only tastes and looks good, but also boosts omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.

Drouillard said a preliminary comparison of costs indicates that shipping flaxseed to the major cattle producing states (such as Kansas, Texas and Nebraska) is feasible. Even while paying additional transportation costs, producers can feed flaxseed at a cost similar to feeding diets with the same content of fat and protein, such as a tallow and soybean meal mixture. (See related story.)

K-State is continuing the flaxseed studies to determine differences between responses to the diet in steers and heifers and how that might affect implant strategies. Researchers also are interested in finding the optimal feeding times for finishing cattle, and the best ways to process flax before feeding.

Does Feeding Flax Cost More?

MANHATTAN, Kan. - Research at Kansas State University touts the benefits of feeding flaxseed to cattle, but if High Plains cattlemen hope to capitalize on this good news, they'll have to pay to have the oilseed transported into the state.

Flaxseed - also called flax - is grown mostly in North Dakota and Canada. As far back as the 1920s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the climate of Kansas is "unsuitable for production of flax," said Jim Drouillard, an animal scientist with K-State Research and Extension.

But, Drouillard adds, buying flaxseed from locations where it is grown is feasible, and will probably add value to cattle in the form of improved calf health, increased carcass quality grade, and the potential for producing value-added meat products.

"On the low side, we estimate feeding flax will improve the value of all animals by $5.50 per hundredweight," said Drouillard, citing a preliminary economic comparison.

At the amounts fed to cattle in K-State trials (10 percent of the diet), flax provides similar amounts of fat and protein contained in a mixture of 45 percent tallow and 55 percent soybean meal. Drouillard said flax costs $220 per ton (including shipping), which is about midway between the average cost for tallow ($280 per ton) and soybean meal ($170 per ton).

K-State's research indicates flax improves cattle health and enhances marbling in consumer beef, meaning that a higher percentage of products will grade 'Choice,' 'Select,' or 'Prime.' All of those factors translate into more money for cattle producers, which offsets shipping costs, Drouillard said.

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