Expanding Marketing Opportunities for Dried Nutraceutical Sericea Lespedeza Products for Small-scale Farmers

Final report for LS18-301

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2018: $290,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2021
Grant Recipient: Fort Valley State University
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Thomas Terrill
Fort Valley State University
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Project Information

Abstract:

Alternative products for farmers with limited acreage are of special interest to the 1890 institutions with limited resource, socially disadvantaged and small-scale farming clientele. Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata) is a warm season, non-bloating, perennial legume rich in condensed tannins which grows well on poor quality soils with relative low inputs. Beyond its nutritional value as a forage, SL also helps control parasites in small ruminants and has reduced mastitis in dairy animals and house flies from feces, all thought to be due to the specialized CT in this plant. Sericea lespedeza also benefits the environment through nitrogen production and soil building and reducing methane from animals consuming it. As more information becomes available about SL bioactivity, the market for SL dried products (hay, pellets) that can be shipped to areas where it does not readily grow and to people who do not have the resource to grow it has increased dramatically, offering growers a new opportunity.

However, research and educational materials for beginners related to production and processing methods and their effect on product quality and marketability, and the economic feasibility of different production and marketing strategies is not readily available.

In this project we will work directly with small-scale and limited-resource farmers at several locations in the southeastern United States who have not previously grown SL to establish, manage, process, and market SL as a nutraceutical hay using best management practices developed from survey information collected from current SL producers. Data on soil fertility before and after the study will be collected at each participating farm, as well as yield, nutritional quality, and anti-parasitic bioactivity of SL hay produced. Economics of SL establishment, management, and processing as hay will be evaluated for each farm, as well as profitability of direct marketing of SL hay or contract growing hay for sale in bulk to existing feed stores.

This proposal intends to conduct this type of research in collaboration with farmers and feed store owners in at least three Southeastern states (Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina) to increase the number of profitable SL growers, and support an emerging agricultural industry of nutraceutical feed production and marketing. The research will then be used to develop educational materials for online and face to face training of new SL growers through a project website, field days and producer and county agent workshops. During the project, a SL producers' network will be developed to facilitate information exchange and continued cooperation beyond the period of the proposal.

Project Objectives:
  1. Develop sustainable lespedeza production strategies  for small and limited-resource producers in the Southeast.
  2. Assess nutritional and anti-parasitic (nutraceutical) properties of dried sericea lespedeza products (hay) as a marketing strategy.
  3. Assess economic feasibility of direct and indirect marketing of lespedeza hay as a nutraceutical forage.
  4. Communicate research findings and best practices to producers through workshops, collateral educational material, and establishment of a formal lespedeza producers' network.

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Ajit Mahapatra
  • Richard Morgan - Producer
  • Brad Cresswell - Producer
  • Eddie Martin - Producer
  • Dr. Niki Whitley
  • Reed Edwards - Producer
  • Eric Simpson - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

By working through County Agents in Georgia and other contacts, 25 farmers throughout Georgia, western South Carolina, and eastern Alabama representing various climatic zones, soil types, levels of input, etc., were identified to be included in the research program. To qualify, producers had to have little to no previous experience with sericea lespedeza (SL; Lespedeza cuneata) as a hay or grazing crop and have 5-10 acres of land to devote to the project. Each participating farmer was provided 'AU Grazer' SL seed and funds to purchase fertilizer and cover travel costs associated with field days at Fort Valley State University and at an SL producer site. Each participant was given written instructions on best management practices for SL establishment, weed control, and management as a nutraceutical (nutrition + animal health) hay or grazing crop prior to starting the project. The intent was to then collect data related to establishment, management, and marketing of SL at each participating producer's site. Prior to the start of the study, producers were requested to submit soil samples for analysis to determine soil type and structure, level of soil fertility and organic material content, etc., in the SL fields. The study is currently continuing past the project funding dates, and when it is concluded, additional soil samples will be taken at each participating site to determine effects of SL production on soil fertility, organic matter, soil structure, etc. At the start of the study, a survey instrument was developed and distributed to producer participants at small ruminant workshops in Georgia hosted by University of Georgia Extension agents, as well as online using a survey instrument hosted by SurveyMonkey®, with the link emailed to a list of 125 individuals with small ruminant interests and a listserve of agriculture and natural resource Extension staff in Georgia. For individual producers, the survey was intended to collect information on species of livestock owned, hay production and type, hay type fed or raised for hay, if they had knowledge of forages with bioactivity to help reduce parasites in small ruminants (sheep/goats), specifically sericea lespedeza and where they obtained that knowledge, if they were interested in producing a bioactive forage, and their thoughts on feeding or growing sericea lespedeza. An additional survey instrument will be submitted to producers in 2022 who participated in the project to collect information on SL establishment and management, such as planting date and method of planting, weed control, estimated ground cover and percentage SL in the stand each year of the study, use of the crop for grazing or hay for personal use or sale, marketing strategies, etc. Throughout the study, yearly field days were held either at Fort Valley State University or on-farm at an established SL producer site, with invitations sent to all producer participants. At sites where the crop was successfully established, samples of fresh SL were collected in Years 2 and 3 (And, ongoing) to determine yield and quality of SL production.    

 

Research results and discussion:

For the initial survey, a total of 151 surveys were completed, including paper (n=45) and online responses (n=106). The response rates were approximately 90% for paper surveys (45/50) compared to approximately 0.6% based on number of responses/number of Followers on Facebook pages and emails sent (106/17,845). Twenty-six out of the fifty states in the United States were represented, although most of the responses came from states in the southeastern U.S.

Descriptive means and standard errors (SEM), both non-weighted and weighted (region small ruminant prevalence vs response rate) for survey and farm demographic type responses to a survey designed to determine the extent of producer knowledge of bioactive forages. Mean number of surveys returned we 75, 11, 9,and 5 for the Southeast, Midwest, Northeast, and Southwest and West regions, respectively. The majority of livestock raised by the producers completing the survey were goats, the hay type fed was grass, predominantly bermudagrass, and for those selling hay, the primary marketing method was word of mouth. Most farmers had prior knowledge of bioactive forages and were willing to grow sericea lespedeza (SL), mainly for grazing. If they had used or grown SL previously, most farmers had favorable feelings about it and used the cultivar 'AU Grazer'. Most of the producers surveyed would be interested in purchasing and feeding SL pellets if they were available. 

The most surprising result of the survey was that the vast majority of producers had prior knowledge of bioactive forages and were willing to grow SL as an anti-parasitic forage, which is likely an indication of the magnitude of the challenge that gastrointestinal parasite infections are in small ruminants. Another surprising result was the number of producers interested in using SL pellets in their small ruminant feeding programs. This confirms the demand for SL pellets, which has been much greater than the supply for several years. 

Although data on SL establishment and management success is still being collected, some general trends have emerged based upon phone conversations with participating producers, and farm visits. In general, although the growing season was shorter, better SL establishment was observed on farms in the northern counties of AL, GA, and SC compared to the more southern counties in these states (mainly GA). We believe that this is related to soil type, as soils in northern counties are generally clay or clay-loam, while more southern soils have more sand, which dries out more quickly. This can be a problem with the very small seeds and young seedlings of SL. Also because of the small seed size and initial slow growth, weed control was one of the primary challenges for the producers no matter where their farms were located. Never-the-less, the majority of participating farmers had successful stands of SL after 2 years of establishment and expressed interest in continuing to work with the plant as a nutraceutical forage. 

 

Participation Summary
25 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

The educational approach used with the producers participating in the project was to disseminate information on establishment, management, and marketing of sericea lespedeza (SL) both online and in person through University and on-farm field days and seminars. Online information on SL was made available to producers and other clientele groups through SL fact sheets and scientific and producer-oriented papers and presentations on an SL project page (https://www.wormx.info/sl)on the web site of the American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control (https://www.ACSRPC.org or https://wormx.info). Hard copies of these resources were made available to participants in producer workshops and project field days. 

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
5 On-farm demonstrations
4 Online trainings
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

30 Farmers
10 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

A primary outreach component of this project was in the form of a lespedeza page (https://www.wormx.info/sl) on the web site of the American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control (ACSRPC; https://wormx.info) that included producer-friendly publications and worksheets on lespedeza establishment, weed control and management as a hay or grazing crop, as well as its use as a nutraceutical crop for managing internal parasites in small ruminants. We also held University and/or on-farm producer workshops each year of the project on all aspects of lespedeza establishment, management, and utilization as a nutraceutical forage.  Survey data on producers' willingness to utilize sericea lespedeza in different forms (grazing, dried, ensiled) as a nutraceutical (nutritional + pharmaceutical) forage in their operation was published in a Master's thesis and in abstract form. An FVSU Animal Science Master's student also made an oral presentation of the data at a national scientific conference.   

Learning Outcomes

40 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

30 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata) has been used for conservation purposes and as an inexpensive feed source for livestock for over 100 years, but research over the last 15-20 years has emphasized the nutraceutical (nutrition + animal health) properties of this plant. Research has revealed a number of bioactive compounds in lespedeza, including a high concentration of condensed tannins with a unique molecular structure (up to 98% prodelphinidin tannin subunits)  that have anti-parasitic, anti-bacterial, and anti-bloat properties, and also reduce ruminal methane emissions in livestock and kill fly larvae in manure. This combination of being a low-input (inexpensive) forage that tolerates acidic soil and drought better than most other grasses and legumes, as well as its many health benefits for animals is contributing to agricultural sustainability in a number of ways. The greatest constraint to profitable livestock production world-wide is infection with internal parasites, and overuse and misuse of anthelmintic drugs has led to an epidemic of anthelmintic-resistant parasites, making this approach unsustainable. As a natural alternative to drugs, grazing or feeding lespedeza as part of an integrated parasite management system is a more sustainable long-term approach to parasite control. In addition, much of the land available for grazing and hay crops in the Georgia and other states in the southeastern US is marginal, with low organic matter and high acidity, and trying to add enough lime and fertilizer to grow high-input forages on this land is unsustainable and unprofitable. Growing a low-input forage such as lespedeza, which tolerates acid soils and drops its lower leaves to add organic matter and reduce soil erosion on marginal land is a more sustainable use of these areas. In addition, demand for nutraceutical hay or pellets is out-stripping supply, particularly with small ruminant producers, creating marketing opportunities for lespedeza growers. Getting more small-scale producers involved in production and marketing of sericea lespedeza dried products (hay and pellets), or utilizing the crop for grazing of livestock was the primary goal of this project, and all of the producer participants, as well as others who have learned from their experience, have greatly benefited from this work. Interest in the project continues to expand every year, with more and more enquiries about where to purchase lespedeza seed and how best to establish and manage lespedeza as a nutraceutical crop. As more information is being reported on the medicinal/nutraceutical properties of this plant every year, we expect this trend to continue well into the future.    

Recommendations:

This project has focused on the nutraceutical benefits of producing sericea lespedeza as a grazing or hay crop for livestock, but recent research on this plant has been focused on its potential for improving human health. This would suggest that future research on lespedeza be expanded to examining its potential nutritional and health benefits for both humans and animals, particularly with limited-resource producers in areas of the world where the plant is well-adapted, such as in southern Africa.  

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.