4/19/2014 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delmarva Correspondent
LEWES, Del. — Could a common marsh flower have major implications for the Delmarva poultry industry?
The University of Delaware is studying the seashore mallow plant to see if it could be used as an alternative source of bedding for poultry houses.
The seashore mallow is normally seen as a pastel splash of pink color scattered across local salt marshes. It grows in coastal areas from New Jersey southward and along the Gulf Coast to Texas.
Scientists are studying the common plant to see if it could be an alternative to other bedding sources, such as pine, which may not be able to keep up with the demand of a thriving poultry industry.
Jack Gallagher of the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment’s Halophyte Biotechnology Center in Lewes, said that some early trials of seashore mallow as a poultry bedding appear promising.
One issue being studied is whether the mallow damages chicken feet because chicken feet are highly prized as food in parts of the Far East, he said.
“It does seem to be working well,” he said.
Gallagher said that the seeds of the plant can be pressed to produce oil to be used as a biofuel. The meal produced after the oil is extracted is rich in protein, and the university was in contact with Penn State University to discuss potential uses.
Penn State researchers said they didn’t think the meal would work very well as a food for cattle.
“We started to say, What can we do for the poultry industry?’” he said.
The answer was to use the lightweight and very absorbent plant fibers as a potential bedding source. Gallagher said it’s one of many potential uses for the plant. The seed can produce oil and the blooms could perhaps be used as a tea, much like hibiscus is used.
Chinese researchers have studied making fiber or thread out of the plant’s stems. Salmon farmers have approached Gallagher about using the meal to feed farm-raised salmon, although that idea has not yet been studied.
Because of it’s absorbency, the material could be useful in kitty litter or as an absorbent for oil or other spills in places of business such as an auto repair shop. It also can be used as a mulch to prevent erosion on roadsides or as bedding for small animals such as rabbits.
Gallagher said there may be an estimated 100 million acres of land worldwide that are impacted by salty soils. The combination of poor irrigation and sea level rise has left much of the world’s soils unable to grow traditional crops such as corn or soybeans.
It’s a problem so old that art from the Tigris and Euphrates River region, considered by many to be the birthplace of civilization, depicts a change from growing wheat to a more salt-tolerant barley, according to Gallagher.
Locally, some farmland near Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge has already been impacted by dune breaches that have allowed saltwater from Delaware Bay to flow into what were previously freshwater impoundments in the refuge.
But salty soils can still grow potential crops such as switchgrass or seashore mallow, he said. Both are being studied as potential alternative crops for farmers on marginal land.
Gallagher and his colleague and wife, Denise Seliskar, are working with the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, the Delaware Environmental Institute, Delaware Wild Lands, the College of Earth, Ocean and the Environment, Delaware Sea Grant, and others on the project.
A fact sheet from the Halophyte facility describes the idea for the research efforts as growing a “salt tolerant, oil seed, multiuse crop on saline land or dry land that can be irrigated with brackish water or seawater, thus freeing fresh water and high-quality soil for food and feed and bringing poor land into production.”
It is a drought-tolerant perennial and it can be harvested with a combine and a baler, meaning traditional farm equipment can be used for the easily grown plant. It can also be planted near waterways as a buffer to take up nutrients, he said.<\c> Photo by Michael Short
Young seashore mallow plants and a straw bale made from the dried stalks.