I like to post a variety of content here on The Prairie Homestead, and for the most part, we keep it pretty light and fun. But every once and a while, I like to dive in a little deeper and explore the science behind some of my crazy natural choices. I am ecstatic to be welcoming Eric Zielinski back to the blog today. He is a health coach and skilled researcher who specializes in natural topics that are right up my alley! From time to time, he’ll be joining us and sharing some of his research, as is the case for today’s kelp post.
Have you fed your cows their kelp today?
I know… I may have just confirmed your suspicions that I’m a little bit off my rocker… but hear me out. 😉
In its most basic sense, kelp is simply a type of edible seaweed, and yes, some folks do indeed feed it to their livestock. Read on for details!
A Little Background on Kelp…
Kelp is a marine brown algae that is loaded with nutrition (more on that below!). It’s similar to nori, which is what sushi is traditionally wrapped in, but is used much differently. If the thought of you or your livestock eating sushi or seaweed grosses you out, then I have to warn you: you’re probably consuming kelp in one form or another on a regular basis!
Algin, an emulsifying and bonding agent, is extracted from kelp and is commonly used to make:
- Dairy products
- Frozen foods
- Salad dressings
- Store-bought cakes & baked goods
- And even pharmaceuticals
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), each year 100,000 – 170,000 wet tons of kelp is harvested from California waters alone. It’s mind-blowing to think that we can use almost 3 million cubic feet from America’s West Coast underwater kelp forests!
Using Kelp for Livestock
Some of the more common reasons kelp is used for livestock include:
- Enhancing immune function
- Increasing meat quality
- Reversing depressed immune function
- Reducing the stress associated with weaning
- Weight gain
The Great Kelp Debate
You probably didn’t know this, but there has been a debate whether or not to feed kelp to livestock for over 100 years. It’s actually quite an interesting history lesson– here’s a quick run-down:
- It has been claimed that research conducted in the early twentieth century failed to support including seaweed into animal rations at high rates.
- In turn, dried seaweeds largely fell out of favor and authorities stopped recommending kelp as an animal feed source.
- Nonetheless, dried seaweeds and kelp meal were still held in high regard by scattered pockets of farmers and homesteaders as people insisted that it improved animal health and productivity.
- Later, in the 1970s, renewed interest in kelp as a rich source of over 60+ microelements was spurred on by groundbreaking research. Chelated micro mineral sources were discovered in various seaweeds that proved to be more efficient than conventional inorganic sources for microelement supplementation.
- Interesting, scientists forgot about kelp for a while and it was only just a few years ago that researchers were able to finally connect the dots and understand why seaweed supplementation led to prebiotic action and, thus, improved health in livestock.
- This spurred on another seaweed revival and research continues today to seek out the benefits of dried kelp in animal feed.
- Most recently, it has been discovered that various brown seaweeds actually contain such beneficial phlorotannins and antioxidants.
So, How Has The Natural Farming And Homesteading Community Responded To All Of This?
For the most part, we all support kelp supplementation. In his book, “You Can Farm”, Joel Salatin recommends using cold water Icelandic kelp that is geothermally dried because it preserves the nutrient content and is believed to be less contaminated with harmful pollutants.
Just some of the nutrition that makes kelp so popular with small farmers and homesteaders is due to the fact that it is rich in:
- Dietary Sodium
- Pantothenic Acid
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin K
It is almost impossible to find any livestock supplement that is so rich in macro and micronutrients! Really, at the end of the day there seems to be little reason why we should NOT feed our animals kelp.
Let’s see what the research has to say…
Digging into Kelp a Little Deeper
Just this past April, the International Animal Journal published a study evaluating seaweeds harvested from the Galician coast in Spain as a mineral source for organic dairy cattle. When comparing how cows supplemented with algae fared against those not fed kelp, the researchers discovered some interesting results:
The algae supplement significantly improved the animals’ mineral status, particularly iodine and selenium that were low on the farm. However, the effect of the algae supplement on the molybdenum status in cattle needs further investigation because of its great relevance on copper metabolism in ruminants. The iodine supply deserves special attention, since this element is at a very high concentration in brown-algae species and it is excreted in the milk proportionally to its concentration in plasma concentrations
Also published in April, a review out of the Journal of Applied Phycology claims that the studies on seaweed products for animals have shown that kelp and other seaweeds contain “prebiotic potencies at least five times that of the reference prebiotic inulin with additional performance-enhancing benefits in animal rations that rival antibiotic inclusions.”
Rival antibiotics? Yep! Prebiotics are fabulous and are actually required for maximal health.
Not to be confused with probiotics, prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that nourish the good bacteria already in the colon. These plant fibers are indigestible and they, in turn, “fertilizer” the good bacteria (probiotics) in the gut.
This is actually quite profound, as several animal and human studies have shown that prebiotics can help prevent:
- Irritable bowel (IBS), or inflammatory bowel disease
- Crohn’s Disease
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Leaky gut
- Colon polyps
- And even cancer
But Will My Livestock Even Eat Kelp?
I know, I know… Some of you out there are probably entirely non-impressed by this scientific stuff and just want to know the bottom-line results. And you’re probably questioning whether or not your livestock will even touch the stuff.
What’s the use of all this nutrition if the cattle won’t even eat it, right? Thankfully, from my experience, that’s usually not a problem.
Check out this video to see a herd gathering around the free-choice mineral & kelp feeder for a mid-day snack.
My horses, cattle, goats, and chickens all love the free-choice kelp that I offer them. I try to keep it available to them at all times, and they even eat it faster than the free-choice mineral I offer alongside of it.
I’m a little leery of offering kelp as the ONLY mineral source for my animals at this point in time, since I first want to educate myself more thoroughly about the common mineral deficiencies in my area, and make sure that kelp will cover all of my bases. But I do know of other natural farmers who rely on kelp as their sole mineral source, and with a little more research, I might try to implement that sort of program down the road.
The Other Side of the Coin
One point we must all consider is that several studies have proved that seaweed and most fish carry dangerous amounts of toxic substances like mercury because of industry bi-products, oil spills and lots of trash being dumped into our fresh and salt waters.
Does this mean that California kelp is more toxic for us and our livestock and that Icelandic kelp is less polluted because it grows in the remote (more protected) frigid waters of the North Atlantic and Artic oceans? Maybe, maybe not. For me, I don’t want to take the risk and I’ll spend the extra money to feed my animals the best that I can afford.
So yes, I’m pretty sure this post about feeding seaweed to my cows has confirmed to many that I’m a little bit crazy… But, I’m pretty sure that’s part of the job description of being a homesteader, so I’m cool with it. 😉
Do you use kelp for your animals? Have you noticed a difference in your livestock’s health or production?
Eric L. Zielinski is on a mission to help people live the Abundant Life. His expertise as a health coach, public health researcher, speaker and writer are in demand all over America, but his primary focus is showering his three children and lovely wife with the tools that they need to be healthy and successful. Check out his website www.DrEricZ.com and follow him on Facebook.