Dairy cows that are fed flaxseed produce milk with more omega-3 fatty acids and less saturated fat, says Oregon State University researcher Gerd Bobe.

In the study, which has been published online in the Journal of Dairy Science, 10 pregnant cows at the university’s dairy were fed different amounts of flaxseed — up to 7 percent of their daily diet. Researchers wanted to pinpoint the amount of flaxseed that would maximize the amount of omega-3 in milk and dairy products without negatively affecting the cows’ production or the milk’s texture.

“We were looking for a sweet spot,” says Bobe, an expert in human and animal nutrition. “Too much of a good thing can be bad, especially when trying to maintain consistency with dairy products.”

The university’s food science and technology department assisted in turning milk into butter and fresh cheese, which were then tested for texture and nutritional composition. The result? Feeding cows up to 6 pounds of extruded flaxseed improved the fat profile without negatively affecting the production or texture of the milk and other dairy products. At that level, the saturated fatty acids in whole milk fat dropped 18 percent, poly-unsaturated fatty acids increased 82 percent and omega-3 levels rose 70 percent compared to feeding no flaxseed. Similar improvements were observed in butter and cheese, though researchers did note that the refrigerated butter was softer and less adhesive due to having fewer saturated fatty acids.

Bobe recognizes that flaxseed costs more than traditional cattle feeds. Still, he hopes that it could be an affordable feed supplement for cows because products enriched with omega-3 can sell for a premium at the grocery store.

“Many consumers already show a willingness to pay extra for value-added foods, like omega-3 enriched milk,” he says.

Bobe also notes that in the study, they found that no coaxing was necessary when it came time for the cows to eat the flaxseed.

“They loved it. They ate it like candy,” he says.