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Scientists Look To Seaweed To Help Cattle Lower Methane Emissions

Maine Public file

Research spearheaded by Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay will try to prove that feeding seaweed to dairy cattle can lower their methane emissions and potentially spawn a new market for seaweed aquaculture.

Bigelow researcher Nichole Price says the project will commence in December to identify wild and commercially-produced Maine seaweed varieties that have certain anti-methane properties. Next summer, groups of dairy cattle will eat the seaweed in various feed mixtures and have their "burps" measured and compared to those of non seaweed eating cows.

"The hypothesis is that adding seaweed to a cow's diet changes a cow's gut microbiome, so those microbes that are the source of methane in the cow's gut are eliminated," says Price.

Price also says that while fossil fuel production contributes the lion's share of global greenhouse gas emissions, about 8.4 percent come from agriculture activities and nearly one-third of that comes from animal methane emissions.

"And we're really worried about methane, because it's 30 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of its potential to cause global climate change, so anything we can do to reduce the amount going into the atmosphere would be helpful," Price says.

Gary Anderson with U Maine Cooperative Extension, which is not a partner in the project, says similar research conducted elsewhere has been promising. But he says other aspects must be considered, such as sustainably sourcing enough seaweed, making a feed ratio that cattle would eat and making it affordable.

"You know there's certainly some social benefits, some environmental benefits, but that's not really changing the economic benefits — the farmer's going to be paying some additional costs to just provide less methane to the environment, so it can't be too expensive if they're going to do that," Anderson says.

The research is funded by a $3 million dollar grant from the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund, and includes Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, Colby College, the University of Vermont and the University of New Hampshire.