Moo-ving on Up: How Chia Seeds are Making Dairy Cows Superheroes

Researchers are developing a project to use chia seeds as an alternative feed for dairy cattle. The goal is to show that milk from cows fed pellets made from chia seeds is a useful product.

Moo-ving on Up: How Chia Seeds are Making Dairy Cows Superheroes
The aim is to use chia seeds to produce highly nutritious fodder. Image by Markus Tries from Pixabay

The consumption of chia seeds has been resumed in daily life and has been categorized as a superfood, since they are an excellent source of fiber and antioxidants, calcium, proteins, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. As a result, researchers from the UNAM's Faculty of Higher Education (FES) Cuautitlán are working on a project to use this herbaceous plant as an alternative to meet the forage needs of dairy cattle.

The goal of university experts José Luis Sánchez Millán and Elsa Gutiérrez Cortez is to show that dairy cattle fed pellets (portions of flour feed that are more palatable and digestible for the animals, easy to store and transport) made with chia forage produce functional milk, that is, milk with the presence of polyunsaturated fatty acids provided by these seeds.

"If so, we would be talking about a milk naturally enriched from the Salvia hispanica forage with which these ruminants would be fed; that is, a milk that preserves the nutraceutical benefits of chia: fatty acids, amino acids, antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which would allow the possibility of offering a dairy product with high nutritional value, not only beneficial for replacement calves but also for children," said the academics, who are developing the research project "Aprovechamiento Integral de la Chía" (Integral Use of Chia).

It has several benefits; the first, and perhaps the most important, is that it is a plant rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which means that it is abundant in linoleic and linolenic acids (omega 3 and 6, respectively), which contain good antioxidants that contribute to health.

It is a plant native to Mexico, although its use and cultivation were suspended due to the arrival of different cereals after the Spanish conquest. It was a part of the daily diet of people who lived before the Spanish came, and the Aztecs gave many tons of it as a tribute every year. It was also thought to be a food for the elite in pre-Columbian Mexico, especially for warriors, because it had a lot of oils that gave them energy to fight.

This seed has another important property: its ability to produce a hydrocolloid (mucilage or gel), which is released when it is soaked; it is considered the best thickener in the dairy industry.

Chia Fodder: A Nutritious and Time-Efficient Option for Animal Feed

As fodder, chia is used in southern Europe because it is difficult for it to become a grain because the harvest period before frost is shorter in that region. Even in the south of that continent, there are areas where the seed is not obtained since it requires, on average, a period of almost six months from planting to harvesting, so they have found an important forage use.

In 2021, Sánchez Millán explained, the working group he heads carried out a trial in one of the plots of the Center for Agricultural Education of the FES Cuautitlán, using three doses of chia seed in a usual experimental design in the field: randomized blocks, rainfed irrigation only with rainwater, and without the use of agrochemicals.

After 72 days of cultivation, the plant was cut, the hay was quantified, and some parameters were determined, such as photosynthetic capacity and nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium content throughout the cycle, to establish the amount of nutrients in the plant species.

In 2022, "we had a drought that caused us to lose almost one hectare of the plantation, so we needed to develop a more efficient cultivation system in the use of water, since the plant is not very resistant to drought, which led us to modify the cultivation system and is giving us good results,"  with a concentration of 20 percent crude protein for animal consumption, unlike the chia grain that takes a process of almost six months.

The shape of the furrow was modified. "We did an experiment with three levels of micropiles, that is, mini-presses that are made in the same furrow; what we did not know is how far apart to establish one from the other. This has allowed us, with an extremely low rainfall, to produce high-quality chia fodder in 77 days.

According to Elsa Gutiérrez Cortez, with scarce rainfall, they obtained good forage. "We are not daring to do this without knowledge of the cause; they have already done it in Italy with excellent results, but our advantage is that we have obtained a range of pellets with the advantage that this cattle feed can be stored for longer and at a time when there might not be forage to make use of it."

In 2022, an important issue is the lack of production of cereals such as corn, wheat, and oats due to the impact of the strong drought that the country experienced and the war between Ukraine and Russia, a situation that "came to modify and increase the price of the little that was sown, and with it the animals were the most affected by the lack of food, and if there was any, it was at extreme prices."

Fodder chia is a good option because of the nutrients it could provide and the short time it takes to obtain the fodder, which can be used as food instead of other conventional ones such as alfalfa and oats.

It has nutraceutical properties, which is why it is considered a functional food; it has antioxidant capacity; it can stimulate the peristaltic movement of the intestines; and its mucilage generates a coating of the gastric mucosa. It also provides nutritious fatty acids and, therefore, energy, characteristics that could also be found in forage.

Likewise, the by-product, such as husk, also provides important nutritional qualities to animals for zootechnical use, such as dairy cows, goats, sheep, and rabbits. There are even reports that when it is fed to pigs, their meat is leaner.

In view of this, we are trying to do the same with this type of animal as well as with laying poultry—according to some reports, by providing them with this type of food, the egg has a lower concentration of cholesterol—and broilers (chickens), said the food engineer.

Once the oil and mucilage have been taken out of the seeds, "we have ground the resulting bagasse to use the resulting flour to experiment with making third-generation snacks that are baked and therefore healthier, like churritos and tostadas. "In addition to including it in tortillas, it could also be added to cookies, cakes, breads, breakfast cereals, etc.; in other words, its use would be integral," he said.

The General Directorate of Academic Staff Affairs at UNAM and the Research Chair of FES Cuautitlán are paying for the project. Social service students and first-year students are also taking part.