Feeding Cows Seaweed Makes Them Less Gassy

New study shows that cattle belches can be significantly reduced.

May 18, 2021
Feeding Cows Seaweed Makes Them Less Gassy | New study shows that cattle belches can be significantly reduced.

Cows are very beautiful animals that are actually known to have bonded with people. After all, who can resist those beautiful brown eyes? So take a drive to the countryside and check out some of those bovine beauties today but be sure to keep your car windows closed.

That’s because cattle farming is a smelly business. But a new study from University of  California, Davis, published in the March issue of the journal PLOS ONE, found that feeding cows a specific seaweed - asparagopsis taxiformis can reduce the release of greenhouse gasses in cattle farming by as much as 82 percent according to a press release from the university.

These gasses are created because cow’s ruminant and can digest plants that would otherwise be inedible. This ability stems from their four-compartment stomachs that are filled with microbes that can ferment and break-down the feed into nutrients according to The Conversation. But the process also produces methane and other gasses that cows belch out.

Methane is the second largest contributor to climate change and the majority of methane greenhouse gas emissions come from ruminating animals like cows. With around 1 billion cattle around the world, reducing methane emissions will go a long way to curbing global warming.

“We now have sound evidence that seaweed in cattle diet is effective at reducing greenhouse gases and that the efficacy does not diminish over time,” Ermias Kebreab, professor and Sesnon Endowed Chair of the Department of Animal Science and director of the World Food Center said in the press release. “This could help farmers sustainably produce the beef and dairy products we need to feed the world.”

During the summer of 2020, the UC Davis researchers added small amounts of seaweed to the diet of 21 beef cows and tracked their weight gain and their methane emissions. The cattle that ate 80 grams of seaweed gained as much as the control group of cows that didn’t and burped out significantly less methane.

This research was built upon their earlier work in 2018 that first showed that adding seaweed to feed could reduce emissions by over 50 percent. The seaweed actually inhibited an enzyme in the cow’s digestive system that helps form the methane gas.

The new study tested to see if these reductions could be sustained. The cows ate a seaweed “snack” four times a day from an open-air tester that measured the methane in their breath.

The results found that there was no drop-off in the effectiveness over time. And the results from a taste test found no differences in flavor of the beef from the cattle that were fed the seaweed. Other tests with dairy cows showed that there was no change in the taste of the milk.

Going forward, the scientists need to find a way to farm the type of seaweed they used because there isn’t enough of it in the wild. Another obstacle is to find a way to provide seaweed to cattle that graze on open ranges and not in feed lots.

“There is more work to be done, but we are very encouraged by these results,” said Breanna Roque, a Ph.D. graduate student  who worked on both studies. “We now have a clear answer to the question of whether seaweed supplements can sustainably reduce livestock methane emissions and its long-term effectiveness.”

While many people advocate for eliminating all meat production for environmental, health, and ethical reasons, making cattle and dairy agriculture more sustainable. And it will still go along way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and still provide real beef and dairy products for the people who want them.

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Bonnie has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.