A new study has found that by changing a cow’s diet slightly we can drastically decrease the amount of methane gas they release. So what is this secret ingredient that is able to change cow’s emission levels? Seaweed.
Researchers at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia in conjunction with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) have discovered that a type of Australian red algae can reduce methane emissions from cows. Rocky De Nys, a professor of aquaculture, and his team found that adding 2% of this dried seaweed to a cow’s diet reduces methane emissions in that cow by 99%.
The seaweed used is a species of red algae called Asparagopsis taxiformis. It grows naturally off the coast of Queensland. When digested, this seaweed produces a compound known as Bromoform (CHBR3). Bromoform then interacts with enzymes in the stomach to halt the production of methane gas before it is released into the atmosphere.
Why Is Methane Gas So Dangerous?
Methane gas is of particular concern for researchers and scientists because of how dangerous it is in our environment. Over a 100 year period, methane gas is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Cows release 70 to 120 kilograms of methane gas every year. In fact, burps from cows are responsible for 26% of the United States’ total methane emissions.
Currently, the US is fourth in the world in cattle production following China, Brazil and India. With 1.3 to 1.5 billion cows on the planet, it’s obvious that this methane gas issue is a huge problem.
How Seaweed Became the Answer to Our Methane Problems
The effects of seaweed on cows’ diets was first studied in 2005 almost by accident. Joe Dorgan, a fairy farmer in Prince Edward Island, Canada, noticed that some of his herd would snack on washed-up seaweed. The cows that did graze on seaweed were healthier and more productive than the rest of the herd. Dorgan began feeding all of his cows a mixture of the seaweed. He found that this new feed saved him money and resulted in longer reproductive periods for his herd.
Six years later, Dorgan sold his farm and began selling seaweed-infused cow feed full-time. North Atlantic Organics, his cow feed company, uses hand raking and solar drying to produce their seaweed in order to reduce their carbon footprint and not include additives in their product.
Long before Dorgan discovered the benefits of seaweed, Ancient Greeks in 100 BC fed their animals seaweed. Farmers in Iceland have also experimented using kelp and algae in feeding their livestock. With cows, they noticed an increase in milk yields and overall healthier cattle.
In 2014, Rob Kinley and Alan Fredeen, two Canadian researchers, confirmed what Joe Dorgan, Ancient Greeks and Icelandic farmers already knew - seaweed is beneficial for cows. In addition to the health and reproductive benefits, Kinley and Fredeen discovered that “feeding seaweeds and macroalgal products has been shown to reduce enteric methane emission from rumen fermentation.”
When De Nys began his research in Australia, he invited Kinley to join him. In their research, De Nys and Kinley tested 20 different species of seaweed. They found that methane could be reduced by up to 50 percent. However, they found that this reduction in methane gas required large amounts of seaweed that might negatively affect the cow’s digestion. But the discovery of Asparagopsis taxiformis red algae changed those results - only 2% of algae was needed for a 99% methane emission reduction.
The Future of Seaweed in Cow Feed
Unfortunately, there are a few roadblocks to introducing widespread red algae infused cow feed. Many dairy farms are located inland, nowhere near large supplies of seaweed. The red algae in question is also harder to come by. Researchers estimated that 15,000 acres of commercial seaweed farms would be required to get enough red algae to feed just 10% of Australia’s cattle. So while seaweed harvesting could work well on a farm by farm basis with those located near the ocean, there are major problems in widespread distribution.