Healthy feed means healthy milk: The science behind omega-3-enriched dairy

July 12, 2016— Regina, Saskatchewan

A partnership between NRC-IRAP, Oleet Processing and the University of Saskatchewan enabled a graduate student to study the effects of extruded flaxseed on a cow’s health, as well as on milk production, over the course of many months. The result? Omega-3 milk with disease-fighting properties.

When consumed, omega-3 fatty acids help reduce the chances of heart disease and cancer, and they lower the rates of obesity. It stands to reason then that one should consume more omega-3 fatty acids. As a result, functional-food producers have begun incorporating them into eggs and other products through the use of animal feeds, a trend that’s caught on in recent years.

Omega-3 occurs naturally in some fish, nuts and oil-seeds; but not everyone likes fish, and nuts are a common allergen. But what about milk? Turns out, you can feed a dairy cow flaxseed with a high omega-3 content, but you can’t necessarily drink an omega-3-enriched milk product afterwards. Even though cows love flaxseed, the omega-3 in the flaxseed doesn’t make it all the way to the milk produced – the ruminant stomach’s microbial bacteria attack the polyunsaturated omega-3 fat prior to its digestion into the lower intestine.

In order to enrich milk with omega-3, the challenge is in having the healthy fat from the flaxseed survive intact through the cow, to the milk, to the person consuming the milk.

Regina’s Oleet Processing (doing business as O&T Farms) took on that challenge. It devised a novel way to help protect the omega-3 fat as it passed through the cow’s entire digestive system, in particular its rumen (watch video describing the process). Through a process called dry extrusion, the flaxseed is erupted and simultaneously encapsulated with a protein barrier, creating a product dubbed LinPRO-R that cows seemingly loved eating, and resulting in measurably higher levels of omega-3 in the milk.

But expensive and difficult questions remained: Are milk production levels affected by the new feed? And were the cattle really happy consuming it? Laboratory testing was required to prove the efficacy of Oleet’s new feed.

The business and science behind the feed

In order to enrich milk with omega-3, healthy fat from flaxseed must survive intact through a cow’s digestive system to its milk, and on to the person consuming that milk. Regina’s Oleet Processing discovered a way to do that with its LinPRO-R animal feed.

Farming, explained NRC-IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor Colleen Christensen, is a risk-averse business.

“Dairy cows are expensive,” she said. “There is a lot of risk if milk production is lowered. Dairy farmers don’t want to stress or hurt their cows. They want happy cows, from an ethics point of view, and they really don’t want to try new feed with their animals, unless you can show them that it won’t hurt milk production.”

A champion was needed who would fund research on the biological effects and the efficacy of LinPRO-R. NRC-IRAP filled that role, facilitating the partnership between Oleet and academia.

“It’s important for a small, private company to associate with a university, where there are skilled people with the appropriate expertise and research infrastructure,” she said. “Doing research at the University of Saskatchewan gave credibility to the results. It’s all about sophistication. This was a really sophisticated experiment.”

The partnership between IRAP, Oleet and the university enabled a graduate student to study the effects of the consumption of the extruded flaxseed on a cow’s health, as well as milk production over the course of many months. In the end, Oleet had the hard science it needed for sales, farmers had the knowledge that the product was safe for their cattle and didn’t harm production, consumers had an omega-3-enriched milk with disease-fighting properties, and a graduate student received her MSc degree (she was later hired by Oleet). A win for everyone.

“That was the crux of it,” said Rob Dreger, Director of Sales and Marketing at Oleet. “Realizing LinPRO-R could enhance the omega-3 profile of fluid milk, we needed to ensure it would not adversely affect either the dairy cow’s gross production or the percentage of fat in the milk, which is how the farmer is compensated. Through the research at the University of Saskatchewan, we were able to find out that there were no adverse production effects.”

The findings were positive for Oleet’s sales. Following the positive lab results, sales of LinPRO-R doubled ($574K to $1.28M) in the six months prior to April 2016.

“Our client sales in Canada and the United States have grown substantially,” said Dreger. “Our sales for year ended March 31 (2016) will be $1.28 million.  We expect that the increase in current fiscal year will continue as greater acceptance of the product’s value for cows grows along with new omega-3-enhanced dairy products.”

“IRAP was just the right program for us. The university research that was done supported the product in the marketplace, and the results show in the increase in sales of this product.”

As LinPRO-R sales increase, more omega-3-enriched milk is being produced across the continent, leading to even more food choice possibilities.

“We’ve identified numerous dairy products that could be marketed as having been enriched by omega-3,” said Dreger. “Multiple types of cheese, cream, ice cream, yogurt, and butter all present opportunities.”

“IRAP was just the right program for us,” he continued. “The university research that was done supported the product in the marketplace, and the results show in the increase in sales of this product.”

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