[Australia] Cattle on a CSIRO research station are being fed a mix of grain and seaweed to see if eating algae drastically reduces methane emissions in cows.
If successful, the trial could pave the way for a commercial Australian seaweed farming industry to help the overall livestock industry cut its methane emissions.
Agriculture contributes more than 15 per cent to Australia’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, and almost 70 per cent of that is from sheep and cattle.
Research last year showed that in a laboratory setting, adding dried seaweed to a cow’s diet could reduce the amount of methane it produced by up to 99 per cent.
Those results are now being put to the test in live cattle at the CSIRO’s Lansdown Research Station, west of Townsville, in north Queensland.
“We are at the very front end of the research trial so these animals have been grass-fed up until now,” research scientist Dr Rob Kinley said.
Methane is released through burping, and is created in the digestion process of cellulose in the rumens (first stomach) of livestock.
This trial is based on similar research with sheep which showed impressive methane reductions after the animals were fed algae.
That trial showed a 60 per cent reduction in methane emissions, even though some sheep in the trial only had 1 per cent of their diet as seaweed.
“There was a 60 per cent methane reduction for a 1 per cent diet of seaweed, but a 2 per cent seaweed diet caused a 70 per cent reduction, and a 3 per cent diet caused an 80 per cent reduction,” Dr Kinley said.
With that in mind, Dr Kinley expects the beef trial will yield even better results than the sheep one.
“That particular seaweed was of a low quality, but the seaweed we have for this study is much better than what we fed to the sheep,” he said.
“This study is also a lot more controlled and is a little more advanced in how it’s laid out because we are measuring more aspects.”
Results expected by end of July
While the trial is tipped to be a success, CSIRO research scientist Ed Charmley said he hoped to see extra benefits of feeding seaweed to cattle, such as improved growth performance.
“What we are really interested in is what the effects are of seaweed on performance, because if less methane is being produced, that energy can go into live weight gains,” he said.
“So, do the cattle grow faster as well? That would be a fantastic outcome if that is the case.
“We are also interested in the feed intake of the cattle [and] whether or not they eat more or less feed when the algae is in there.”
Dr Charmley said researchers hoped to have early results by July, and if they were positive, the trial could be expanded to feedlots.
“We are only feeding a small number of animals because we only have a small amount of algae,” he said.
“But Rob Kinley has been in touch with feedlots who are interested to do this on a commercial scale, to test what is happening in the real world.”
Mr Kinley says the team collected large amounts of Asparagopsis taxiformis seawoood off Great Keppel Island near Yeppoon. (Supplied: Rob Kinley)
Seaweed currently handpicked by divers
However, finding enough seaweed for a bigger trial is a major challenge for the team of CSIRO researchers, and is the remaining barrier to a commercial algae production industry in Australia.
The species of seaweed used in the trial is called Asparogopsis taxiformis, and currently it is handpicked by scuba divers off central Queensland.
“There is nowhere to buy it and it can only be manually harvested, so the scuba divers go down and cut it loose, stuff it into bags and then snorkelers collect it and take it up to the barge,” Dr Kinley said.
Given there are about 30 million cattle in Australia, handpicked seaweed will not be enough to create a commercial seaweed industry to feed livestock.
Therefore, the solution is to develop ways to farm and process it.
However, this is also difficult, given there are no producers of this type of seaweed anywhere in the world.
“This seaweed has never been farmed before; it’s a discovery we made by testing a wide range of seaweeds, but this showed up as the number one candidate,” Dr Kinley said.
“It is not farmed anywhere, so we can’t buy it, but right now we are trying to develop a supply chain through CSIRO’s innovation accelerator program.
“We have a number of people interested in doing it, but there is no ‘how to’ manual yet.”
Interest from US livestock industry following tax on emissions
There is also interest coming from the United States, where there is pressure on the Californian livestock industry to reduce its carbon footprint.
“California just got slapped with a tax on emissions that will result in a cost of about $150 million every year to the livestock industry,” Dr Kinley said.
“So they are really keen, and scientists at Stanford University and the University of California are asking for small amounts of seaweed.
“We are going to ship them a bit so they can test it in their feeding systems so they can get [production] sped up as well.”
In 2015 the same team of CSIRO researchers proved methane emissions from cattle in Australia were 24 per cent lower than previously thought, equivalent to 12.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
View original article at: Seaweed-fed cows could solve livestock industry’s methane problems