WA and NSW researchers not sheepish on hemp research

Sheep Central, March 6, 2020

A trial industrial hemp crop in Western Australia. Image – DPIRD.

AUSTRALIAN researchers might know by the end of this year whether industrial hemp has potential or problems as a feed source for sheep.

A new research project backed by the Western Australian McGowan Government will examine the potential for hemp as a feed source for sheep.

Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan announced the project at the Australian Industrial Hemp Conference in Fremantle late last month.

Ms MacTiernan’s office said interest is growing in the industrial hemp industry, due to the crop’s versatility for a range of end products spanning from food and oil, to textiles, paper, building materials and fuel.

The Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, in collaboration with ChemCentre WA and Charles Sturt University, will lead the research project to test the nutritional value of hemp as a summer grazing option for sheep. The trials are planned for WA and New South Wales, and will examine the meat quality of sheep on a hemp diet.

The research aims to enhance understanding around potential transfer of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to meat products, to determine if hemp can be safely used as a feed source for food producing animals. THC or tetrahydrocannabinol is the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that gives the high sensation to users. However, industrial hemp varieties contain lower THC levels than cannabis grown to produce marijuana for medical or recreational use. The low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) variety of Cannabis sativa, has been identified as a high-yielding (5-15t biomass/ha, 0.6-1.2t seed/ha).

Meat products supplied for human consumption in WA are not permitted to contain detectable levels of THC, with similar restrictions affecting the use of hemp as feed across Australia and a number of other countries. The project also has funding support from research partners and industry partner St Francis Group.

Trial results expected by end of 2020

An industrial hemp crop in Western Australia. Image – DPIRD.

Livestock research and development director for WA’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development Dr Bruce Mullan said industrial hemp has been grown around Australia for some time.

“But current regulations restrict grazing livestock because of the THC content.”

Current regulation in Australia restricts grazing livestock on hemp crops due to lack of data on the accumulation of THC in animal tissues. The research project aims to provide preliminary data on sheep fed industrial hemp biomass at varying doses. Two experiments will measure THC metabolism, excretion, storage and clearance, digestibility, stress response, animal performance and meat quality.

“So as a crop it has been grown for other purposes, but there is still an opportunity there for it to be used for livestock.

“And if we don’t have guidelines then people will start using it without approval probably, so we have got to provide some basic information,” Dr Mullan said.

Dr Mullan said the initial trial work will look at the nutrient value of hemp for sheep.

“But it will also look at THC excretion and accumulation; is it going just into the fat or is it going into the meat, what is the turnover?

Sheep will be fed pellets with various levels of hemp and then the excretion and accumulation of THC will be measured.

“The hemp is being grown now, so it will be harvested in the next month or so and the trial work will happen and be completed by the end of this year.”

WA’s Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the hemp industry is growing fast in WA, with hemp licences doubling over the past two years.

“There are more than 70 commercial crops and seven hemp research plot trials this season, using 22 hemp varieties.

“Research, such as the new livestock trials announced today, is vital to help fill information gaps and give growers, processors and innovators the knowledge to take this industry to the next level.

“The McGowan Government has provided grants worth more than $400,000 to industry over the past 15 months to support hemp research, development and processing.”


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