We’re feeding seaweed to cows to help reduce methane emissions in livestock, and to secure the sustainability and profitability of the livestock sector.
Two cattle in a pen.
We’re working to reduce the methane emissions of livestock.

We’re researching the benefits of feeding cattle seaweed. It’s one of a number of promising lines of our research that have the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Australia’s $17 billion livestock sector.

Australia is a major producer of livestock, and livestock in Australia are responsible for about 10 per cent of the country’s overall emissions. Livestock also contribute to 60 per cent of all emissions from the agricultural sector. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) over 100 year timeframes.

To combat this issue, we’re working on multiple approaches that could provide significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for the agricultural sector. Both in intensive and pasture-based systems.

Methane-busting seaweed

Raw dried Asparagopsis seaweed.
Raw dried Asparagopsis seaweed before it is refined into a feed supplement.

One potential solution is feeding livestock seaweed. Scientists have found the common Australian red seaweed (Asparagopsis taxiformis and A. armata) virtually eliminates methane emissions in cattle and sheep. This is when it is fed as a dietary additive in low doses.

How does seaweed reduce methane? The metabolites in the seaweed disrupt the enzymes that are responsible for the cattle and sheep producing methane in the rumen (stomach).

And how much seaweed is enough? Studies in cattle and sheep have shown these results are possible when seaweed is included as one per cent or less of the dry diet.

The discovery was made in collaboration with Meat & Livestock Australia and James Cook University, with ongoing research currently underway to understand the optimal feed mixes.

The methane-busting seaweed feed could be commercialised within two years. However, wider adoption (across Australia and overseas) is dependent on establishing a new industry to farm Australian red seaweed at an industrial scale. The possibility of open line seaweed farming is being explored in southeast Asia and elsewhere.

The seaweed option is very promising for cattle in feedlots (about one million cattle in Australia) and dairy cows (about 1.6 million in Australia).

However, applying the feed supplement to cattle grazing on open pasture is logistically challenging. Cattle graze over vast areas, but they have to be fed seaweed every day. There is a need to do more research into technologies that can deliver the seaweed and other methane-reducing feeds to grazed livestock systems to create a solution for all livestock producers.

Beyond seaweed: less burps with legumes

To work around the logistical problems of feeding seaweed supplements, we have been studying whether the amount of methane produced by cattle decreases when they’re fed two tropical legume species: Leucaena and Desmanthus. Both plants not only reduce methane but also boost animal growth.

Compounds in these plants act on the microbes in the rumen in a similar way to the Asparagopsis seaweed. However, the effect is smaller, at around a 20 per cent reduction in methane emissions.

While the effect is smaller, it shouldn’t be discounted. These legumes could be planted into grazing systems now, so that they’re available to livestock in the near-term. They could feed many more of the 24 million beef cattle in Australia. A 20 per cent reduction in emissions from these plants could equate to a saving of anywhere between half a million and a million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. That’s like taking up to 200,000 cars off the road each year.

Another avenue we’re exploring is whether we can influence the microbiome (that is, the gut bacteria) of pasture-fed cattle from a young age. We hope this will also reduce methane emissions. This research is still in its early phase. But the idea is to give cattle compounds from a young age to realign the rumen microbiome to produce less methane. The theory is that once the microbiome is altered, the change to low methane digestion will persist. Hopefully for the lifetime of the animal.

The research projects are all based at our Lansdown Research Station, south of Townsville.

25 comments

  1. I have been feeding kelp extract to horses cows and dogs for decades. Pretty sure it is Tasmanian kelp. I was aiming at trace elements but the gut health benefit was obvious very early on.

  2. Hi Ralph,

    The concept of adding Asparagopsis to drinking water made available to animals in pastoral systems has been considered. That technique has been successful in delivery of soluble nutrients available as solutes and may also work for nutrients that will remain homogenously suspended and preserved in water. At the moment, it is an unviable solution for Asparagopsis as the dried Asparagopsis and its bioactive compounds are not sufficiently soluble nor stable in water and the dried biomass will rehydrate and absorb up to 10 times its weight in water and form a viscous mass.

    FutureFeed is working on what the best delivery method is and how we can accurately account for methane reductions in an open grazing environment.

    Thanks,

    Team CSIRO.

  3. As graziers of beef cattle we are vitally interested in the abatement of methane from our herd.My question relates to the possibility of solubilising the red seaweed and being able to introduce adequate quantities into the water supply?
    We currently use a water injection system to introduce nutrients both micro and macro into a reticulated water supply.
    If this were possible it could be an absolute game changer as it is a very cost effective methodology for us!!!

    1. Hi Ralph,

      The concept of adding Asparagopsis to drinking water made available to animals in pastoral systems has been considered. That technique has been successful in delivery of soluble nutrients available as solutes and may also work for nutrients that will remain homogenously suspended and preserved in water. At the moment, it is an unviable solution for Asparagopsis as the dried Asparagopsis and its bioactive compounds are not sufficiently soluble nor stable in water and the dried biomass will rehydrate and absorb up to 10 times its weight in water and form a viscous mass.

      FutureFeed is working on what the best delivery method is and how we can accurately account for methane reductions in an open grazing environment.

      Many thanks,

      Team CSIRO

    2. Hi Ralph,

      Thanks for your comment. The concept of adding Asparagopsis to drinking water made available to animals in pastoral systems has been considered. That technique has been successful in delivery of soluble nutrients available as solutes and may also work for nutrients that will remain homogenously suspended and preserved in water. At the moment, it is an unviable solution for Asparagopsis as the dried Asparagopsis and its bioactive compounds are not sufficiently soluble nor stable in water and the dried biomass will rehydrate and absorb up to 10 times its weight in water and form a viscous mass.

      FutureFeed is working on what the best delivery method is and how we can accurately account for methane reductions in an open grazing environment.

      Thanks,
      Team CSIRO

  4. The warming effect of fossil methane is about 10% greater than that of biogenic methane such as that coming from the rumens of sheep and cattle. Remember too that biogenic methane is carbon neutral because, as it breaks down, it returns to the atmosphere carbon that was removed from it by the plants that the animals ate, unlike fossil methane which adds new carbon to the atmosphere as it breaks down. From the perspective of the human food supply, during the millennia of agricultural development, it has been found that the most sustainable production systems are based on rotations that include multiple crops and an animal grazing component. One needs to think about more than meat eating when trying to have a healthy, sustainable diet.

  5. We have been running approx 100 black cattle for years, they happily drink 1500 ppm salinity groundwater. The salinity is approx 50% NaCl & 50% Ca/Mg carbonates). To keep costs to a minimum & boost uptake of the the technology maybe think about growing the seaweed in an open topped tank on farm or even in the troughs where the cattle drink.

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