From the North Atlantic kelp beds to a feed bunk near you comes an amazing and potentially powerful nutritional product — Tasco.

Vivien Allen was simply looking for a solution to the endophyte toxicity problem in tall fescue. But, in the process of finding a way to protect cattle grazing tall fescue, she opened the door to one of today's most exciting — and mysterious — topics in animal nutrition.

Working with other forage scientists at Virginia Tech in the early 1990s, Allen became acquainted with a seaweed extract used to increase stress tolerance in turf grasses. Now, scientists, nutritionists and cattlemen are compiling a list of health and performance enhancing effects from feeding cattle a specific form of brown seaweed.

Some of the things being uncovered by feeding cattle the seaweed supplements may include:

  • Enhanced immune systems,

  • Increased tolerance to hot and cold weather,

  • Possible decreased transportation and handling stress,

  • Increased intramuscular fat in beef — better beef quality grades,

  • Reduced E. Coli populations and

  • Increased shelf life of retail beef cuts.

Known commercially as Tasco — the supplements are made from seaweed-derived powder processed by Acadian Seaplants Ltd., Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Texas Panhandle stocker-feeder-rancher Jay Johnson stops just short of saying Tasco is a miracle product.

“Let's just say life is a lot easier around this place with Tasco,” says Johnson, Happy, TX. “And it's sure making a difference for us — in a lot of ways.”

Since using Tasco in his backgrounding rations, Johnson has had to treat fewer sick animals. And when he treats, the antibiotics seem to work better.

“We've had fewer pulls and, more importantly, fewer re-pulls,” he says. “We feed Tasco to everything that goes through our yards now.”

In groups of high-risk calves, Johnson has seen death losses drop from 10% to 4%. “I'm not sure we can point to Tasco for all that decrease in death loss, but I know it's having an effect,” he explains. “Also, the level of feed consumption is more consistent with this stuff in our rations.”

Johnson is anxious to follow some of his Tasco-fed calves through the packing plant. Because antioxidants are released in the Tasco-treated forages, the shelf life of the finished beef can be increased — similar to the effects of cattle fed high doses of Vitamin E.

Quality grades also seem to increase by about one-half in cattle that have grazed seaweed-treated forages.

She Wasn't “Nuts”

Allen tends to be conservative when discussing Tasco — but it's not hard to sense her enthusiasm.

“Of course we were very skeptical about these products at first,” says Allen, now a researcher at Texas Tech in Lubbock. “We've all gone through our share of snake oils and come up empty handed.”

But this appeared to be a different story from the beginning, she adds.

“The very first group of cattle that grazed the seaweed-treated pastures responded with improved immune functions,” says Allen. “We repeated our work in Mississippi and at Texas Tech. We knew right away the application of seaweed to forages was taking a whole new turn.”

The Tasco plot thickens with every new experiment — and the book on Tasco is just beginning, says Kevin Pond, chairman of the Animal and Food Technology Department at Texas Tech.

But, Pond was more than skeptical when Allen first brought the Tasco story with her from Virginia.

“Actually, I thought Vivien was nuts,” says Pond. “I thought there was no way you would see an immune response — especially six months after grazing seaweed-treated forages — no way…”

But, that's exactly what happened.

“This spring the Journal of Animal Science was loaded with Tasco-related research papers,” he says. “There's definitely something to it that goes far beyond what even Vivien initially thought.”

Looking For The Secret

Forage scientists and livestock nutritionists are scrambling to figure out how Tasco works and how it can be put to widespread beneficial use in the livestock industry.

Tasco (short for Texas-Asco — from the brown seaweed Ascophyllum nodosum) is available in three forms.

One form is a water-soluble extract sprayed on forage through a conventional sprayer. The other forms are dry supplement products that can be added to a variety of cattle rations.

Not just any seaweed will produce these results. But, everyone is asking — what's in Tasco that triggers the responses in the forage and animals?

“No one knows for sure,” answers Allen. “That's the $1 million question. If it could be identified, then it's very likely the substance could be manufactured.”

Some believe the effect comes from the trace elements found in the brown seaweed. Dietary antioxidants may also be involved, along with other elements and enzymes.

“We really don't know a lot about what we have here,” says Dan Colling, Kansas City, MO, a nutritionist with Land ‘O Lakes Farmland Feeds. “It could be a specific element, or it could be a combination of elements.”

As a scientist, he hesitates to promote many of the claims about Tasco. The data, he says, just aren't there to say anything other than it appears to do “some good” when used correctly.

The right “dose” of Tasco seems to be very important. Both Allen and Colling caution that it's not a case of “if a little does some good, more will be better.”

“We've seen some cases where, if Tasco is over-fed, it can cause negative responses,” says Allen. “There can even be some antagonistic effects when it's fed with low-endophyte fescue forages.”

Some initial studies with calves fed Tasco following transportation, vaccination and sale barn stress even showed increased sickness due to the Tasco forage.

Timing and length of time Tasco is used in the diet, may be critical, too. There also may be an optimal age of the animal for the benefits to be seen.

Costs for Tasco-14, the dried and crushed product, run about $2,000-$2,250/ton, adding $200-$225 to the cost of a ton of mineral. But when fed as 10% of a mineral mix, the cost drops below 2¢/day/head. Johnson reports his Tasco supplement for stocker-type calves averages about $2/head for 30 days.

Tasco also has potential in swine, horse and even human nutrition. But, it's universally agreed that there needs to be a lot more research and testing before recommendations can be made. Allen, Pond and a host of other scientists are poised to do more work with Tasco.

“It's unusual for research to open so many doors and for it to look so promising,” says Allen. “We haven't seen the end of the Tasco story.”