In Georgia, even the cows thrive on grapes. A new grape-derived cow feed appears to have boosted milk production in Georgia's central winemaking region, Kakheti, in a project with potential implications for elsewhere in the developing world.
The Swedish International Development Agency project, managed by development consultants GRM International, used winemaking waste - known as grape pomace, or chacha in Georgian - to make a protein-rich cow feed that increases milk output.
Grape pomace has been fed to cattle and sheep outside Georgia for centuries, but traditionally as an emergency feed during droughts or simply to fill up cows' stomachs. Most cows cannot digest grape seed, so the milk-friendly protein the pomace contains is wasted.
Not so with Georgian cows, it appears.
Giorgi Khatishvili, the project's senior dairy expert, said that local farmers who took part in the 100-cow study were initially wary about the feed. Now, they are asking for more.
"From the beginning, they said that cows don't like this, it is useless," Khatishvili said. "But when the cows, step by step, tested this product, they liked it."
The chacha used, however, has no alcohol content - unlike the potent Georgian vodka of the same name. Rather, the feed was entirely teetotaler-friendly: 60-percent grape pomace, 30-percent apple pomace and 10-percent straw.
Winter milk production levels among the project's chacha cows increased by about 30 percent (from 4 liters per day to 5.3 liters per day), said Ioseb Labauri, head of Kakheti's Zemo Khodasheni dairy association.
That still keeps Georgian production levels way off the international average of 30 to 35 liters per day, however.
(The number can vary depending on feed and type of cattle.)
But any increase in milk output with little or no corresponding increase in costs could prove significant for other developing countries as well, scientists note.
Georgian farmers usually rely on three-lari (about $1.71) per day per cow for hay to supplement winter diets, project representatives said. The hay keeps cows full, but does nothing for milk production.
Relying on grape pomace - readily available in Kakheti - lets farmers increase production without paying more. Similar experiments with apple pomace and corn stalks and leaves are also underway.
Reasons for the Georgian grape pomace's success are not yet clear; project managers hypothesize that Georgian grapes themselves may have qualities that makes them more digestible for cows. Their combination with other ingredients in the feed could also play a role.
The feed's creator, Ron Leng, an emeritus professor of nutritional biochemistry at Australia's University of New England in New South Wales, could not be reached for comment.
The ultimate test, however, is yet to come. GRM International is still waiting on data to verify how digestible the grape-pomace feed is for Georgian cows.
Until those results are in, agricultural research scientists contacted by EurasiaNet.org were reluctant to pass judgement on the chacha feed. But if shown to be "highly digestible," noted Dr. Peter Robinson, a dairy cattle research specialist at University of California-Davis, the grape-pomace feed could have "worldwide importance and application."
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.