CORVALLIS - Nutritionally balanced "nuggets" are providing a niche market for grass seed straw that would otherwise be burned in the field.

The nuggets - actually cigar-shaped pellets - can provide complete feeds for dairy heifers, backyard beef or horses, said Diane Carroll, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Oregon State University.

Oregon dairy heifers have the potential to consume 81,000 tons of grass straw in nugget form, Carroll said.

Cost varies with nugget composition. The ones Carroll studied cost $112 per ton in bulk, and compare nutritionally with an oat and alfalfa hay mixture at $102 per ton or a grass silage and alfalfa hay mix at $40 a ton.

The nugget advantage over the other forage rations is convenience. "You don't need equipment to cut hay, nor a bunker silo, nor a mixer wagon - and you can get by with limited feed storage facilities," Carroll said.

The nuggets were developed by Harvest Feeds of Amity, Ore., and the research supported by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The nugget is a complete feed made of vitamins, minerals, grains, alfalfa and the grass straw.

The grass straw's long fiber makes a pellet 4 to 5 inches long. "If you try the same thing with an ordinary small pellet, the fiber is too short and you run into acidosis - a major stomach ailment," said Mike Gamroth, OSU Extension dairy specialist.

Gamroth and Carroll said the cost of nugget feed is about six cents a pound. The cost of a nugget diet for a dairy heifer would be about $1.20 a day, or 20 cents more than conventional rations.

Many farmers won't mind the difference because of the nuggets' convenience and minimal feed waste, the researchers said. About 8 percent of forage-grain mixes are wasted, they said.