Straw producers see vast market potential in Middle East
By MITCH LIES
SILVERTON, Ore. -- Oregon's straw industry is working with researchers in the United Arab Emirates on feeding trials that could provide entry to the lucrative Middle East feed market.
Grass straw, once burned as a unwanted residue after seed harvest, has been a prominent source of roughage, or fiber, for beef and dairy cows in Japan and Korea for the past two decades.
Now it is being studied for camels.
Camels, once a mode of transportation, today are reared for breeding, milk, meat and sport, particularly camel racing.
UAE formerly produced nearly 100 percent of its camel feed domestically. But changes in water use have led to a shortage of domestic feed, said Shelly Boshart, vice president of Bossco Trading of Tangent.
Boshart, a straw farmer, processor and chair of the U.S. Forage Export Council's UAE straw committee, recently returned from a trade mission to the emirates.
The forage council approached the Arab nation about meeting their feed needs as part of an ongoing effort to find new markets, Boshart said.
"There is a growing global demand for forage, and transportation efficiencies are making it possible to move product inexpensively to new and remote destinations," said John Sczcepanski, director of the U.S. Forage Export Council.
The Oregon straw industry today exports an average of 600,000 tons of straw annually, mostly to Japan and Korea.
Council members believe straw would fit nicely in a camel's diet, in part because it contains the low protein, high fiber content that camels prefer.
The effort hit a setback, though. When camels became sick after consuming feed mixtures with Oregon straw, UAE breeders suspected the straw, specifically an endophyte common in Oregon turf grass, was the culprit.
Turf grass breeders encourage endophyte development, or expression, in plants because the organism is believed to help plants tolerate drought and improve their resistance to insects and plant diseases.
At high concentrations, however, the organism is toxic to cows.
The good news for the Oregon straw industry is it overcame a problem with endophyte toxicosis in Japan and believed it could develop a similar solution in UAE.
Nearly two decades ago, when the industry was just getting off the ground, cows in Japan developed ryegrass staggers, or endophyte toxicosis, after consuming Oregon-grown grass straw.
Oregon State University researchers worked with Japanese researchers in feeding trials in the 1990s and discovered that endophyte levels above 2,000 parts per billion cause problems in cattle. Cattle, they found, can safety consume endophyte at levels below 2,000 ppb.
"Once we figured out what the problem was, and starting testing for endophyte in our shipments, it went from over 1,000 cases of ryegrass stagger, or endophyte toxicosis, to zero cases within four or five years," Boshart said.
"The solution is dilution," Boshart said.
The industry now takes core samples from bales from each field of perennial ryegrass straw to test endophyte levels. When levels are high, the industry either dilutes the straw so shipments contain endophyte levels below the risk threshold, or it lets customers know of the high endophyte levels, so customers can dilute the straw on their end.
"It is a lot of testing and a lot of paperwork," Boshart said, "but for us to grow as an industry, we are committed to doing this."
U.S. forage industry representatives were joined by OSU scientist Morrie Craig when they traveled to the UAE in October. Craig help set up camel feeding trials similar to the trials Craig coordinated in the 1990s.
The industry donated 75 tons of perennial ryegrass straw for the 30-day trials.
In the trials, which started mid-October, camels are consuming straw containing four different levels of endophyte: 0 ppb, 1,000 ppb, 1,500 ppb and 2,300 ppb.
The industry is donating an additional 50 tons of tall fescue straw for a second set of feeding trials that will start after the conclusion of the first set.
Provided the UAE and OSU researchers arrive at a solution acceptable to all parties, Boshart believes the Middle East could offer a significant market opportunity for Oregon straw.
"I see the UAE as being the opening to the Middle East market, including Saudi Arabia, which is a huge potential market for us," Boshart said.
"The reason is, we have water here," she said, "and eventually, we believe water will be the key for feed."