How has research in using FutureFeed’s Asparagopsis as a livestock feed additive been progressed and supported in Australia?

There are several agencies that are major players in the ongoing development of FutureFeed. CSIRO researchers have conducted the research and provided livestock expertise, research planning, technology and facilities, and financial support through all stages in the development of FutureFeed and subsequent progress in the processes of commercialisation. CSIRO has partnerships and collaborations with Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) in many endeavours and FutureFeed stands to have significant impact in the environmental sustainability and production of red meat in Australia thus MLA is collaborating and supporting the research and the commercialisation of FutureFeed. MLA has contributed extensively through management of the National Livestock Methane Program (NLMP) where the Asparagopsis capability was initially characterised, financial support of livestock feeding studies, collaboration in commercialisation, and guidance in experimental design including provision of expertise in livestock feed formulation. James Cook University (JCU), and more specifically the Centre for Macroalgal Resources and Biotechnology (MACRO) have been instrumental in the development of the initial concept and subsequent selection and characterisation of seaweeds for the NLMP work. MACRO has been influential in all activities in the development of FutureFeed and particularly in the source and quality management of the seaweed biomass.

The widespread adoption of FutureFeed into the red meat and dairy industry will enable the livestock industry to progress toward its goal of being Carbon Neutral by 2030.

What’s the background on the seaweed cattle feed known as “FutureFeed”?

The discovery of this incredible methane-busting seaweed initially began as a screening of many seaweeds in search of a candidate to reduce methane, as both an environmentally responsible effort and a search for a nutritional way to improve efficiency of feed utilisation in livestock.

The first project was one of many in the National Livestock Methane Program. The screening was completed in the laboratory by taking the digestive microbiology of the cow rumen and culturing that in artificial stomachs (fermentation bottles) with gas production monitors attached. The gas was sampled and analysed for methane over time during the digestion of typical feed (grass) with the seaweed added as a supplement. All the seaweeds displayed methane reductions, however we were looking for seaweed that was super potent that would set it apart from all other “natural” methods of managing livestock emissions.

While analysing the gas samples using gas chromatography (GC) there was a repeating scenario of a 10-20% methane reduction, until suddenly one sample showed no methane! At first it was assumed that there was a problem with the GC so the test was repeated, and when the same result was replicated we had our moment of discovery. Those results have reproduced on every subsequent test and the red seaweed Asparagopsis is the star performer.

What seaweed species is being used?

The seaweed from the genus Asparagopsis is a potent agent that reduces methane production in the digestive process of cattle and sheep. There are two species of interest Asparagopsis taxiformis (tropical version) and Asparagopsis armata (temperate version). Both species have similar bioactive chemistry but thrive in different conditions.

Many seaweeds have a beneficial effect on methane production by reduction of 10-20% but Asparagospis is the star performer with unprecedented mitigation induced by a natural product. During screening in the laboratory it eliminated methane (below detection) production from rumen digestive processes.

What level of methane reduction has the CSIRO team seen from inclusion of this seaweed additive in the cow’s diet?

In the laboratory using the digestive processes of cattle with less than 1.0% of the seaweed in the feed, the methane production was reduced to undetectable levels that we refer to as reduction greater than 99%.  In a feedlot beef cattle trial, with less than 0.50% OM inclusion in a ration, methane reduction over 95% was achieved.  Work by US Davis on Dairy cattle has delivered methane reduction over 65% (refer research page for further details) with lower quality Asparagopsis seaweed.

Is it more effective on cattle or are the results observed in all ruminant animals?

The effect is on the microbial consortium in the rumen of the animal and not directly on the animal so the effect will be the same for all ruminant species but efficacy will be variable dependant on the diet of individual animals. The effect should work on the methane producing archaea found in wetlands, manure bunkers, swamps, lake mud etc., and this theory is currently being tested.

Is there a particular breed of cattle that is more susceptible to a reduction in methane emissions when Asparagopsis taxiformis is introduced to their fodder?

Similar answer as the question above. Basically the type of feed the animal eats is more relative to the effect.  Grass produces more methane than grain and the lower quality the grass the more methane is produced.  This is a result of lower feed energy conversion to beneficial metabolism versus loss of feed energy as high energy gas molecules (methane) produced in the less efficient digestion process on poor quality roughage. So Asparagopsis should be more beneficial to animals on poor quality feed vs those on high quality grain based diets (feedlots) but it is expected that it would require more of the seaweed to achieve the same level of methane reduction, depending on the seaweed quality.  Think of it as a beef cow eating grain is already fully amped so it is more difficult to get improvement in productivity, however a beef cow eating poor grass is not doing so well therefore it is easier to get more benefit (The law of diminishing returns). Presumably the energy otherwise lost as methane can therefore be more easily redirected to improved productivity.

How is the additive processed?

The seaweed is not highly processed and is kept intact as ground or flaked seaweed biomass.  It is dried carefully to preserve the bioactivity so low temperature drying is a must and freeze drying is the gold standard.  Processing will involve techniques to keep the seaweed homogenous throughout the feed mixture to maintain uniform intake.

Alternative processing techniques are under investigation and ongoing trials.

Before testing the seaweed on live cows you built a fake cow stomach and tested it in a lab. How do you build a fake cow stomach?

The cow’s first stomach, where the gas is digested, is more like a fermentation tank than a stomach. So if you supply that system with all the things that a cow would, say: temperature maintenance, pH maintenance, a steady flow of nutrients and waste removal, then you can accurately mimic that system in the laboratory. Then you can play with it by feeding it anything you want to, in an ethical manner.

Does it look like a real stomach?

No, it’s glass. There are a number of types with different capabilities based on a single feeding or continuous feeding. The ones used in the Canadian work with the Prince Edward Island seaweeds are double wall glass. The temperature is maintained by running the precise degree of water between the walls and the inside of the tank where the fermentation is going on. So they look like suspended bottles with a lot of hoses and tubes. The version used in Australia is a single feeding type and the temperature is maintained by putting the units in incubators. So it looks like a bottle with a gas monitor on top and simple valve for collecting gas samples. Both types require donor cattle to supply rumen microbes.

What part of the cow contributes most of the methane output?

Cow burps contribute about 90% plus, while farting accounts for the remaining 5-10%.

A lot of cows in USA beef feedlots are fed corn. Does corn make cows emit more methane than, say, regular grass?

No. Grains such as corn and barley are much more readily digestible in the rumen than grass. Although there is a range from emissions roughage grass (and other roughage sources) to lush grass, generally speaking, grass is more difficult to digest. Therefore conversion from feed into utilisable energy for productive metabolism (muscle, milk, wool) is lower for grass than it is for grain.  For this reason, and a host of other gut microbe reasons, grain is fed to livestock for a faster and more efficient production, albeit at greater expense to the farmer.  The net result is more product with less feed energy lost as methane gas in an equation of reduced methane emissions intensity, or more product for the same or less methane. It is true that cattle fed on grain produce plenty of methane, but their productivity level is much higher. The other end of the equation is that grass requires a more complex and wasteful degradation to liberate useful molecules for metabolism.

How do cow stomachs digest feed, and why might they emit so much methane?

The first stomach called the “rumen” is a fermentation vat unique to ruminant animals, and this is what allows them to eat highly fibrous materials such as grass – even coarse grass. Further down the digestive tract more human-like digestion occurs, but the focus of our work is on the rumen because that is where most of the methane comes from. The rumen has a very diverse microbial ecosystem that – apart from provision of a home, temperature control, acidity management, waste removal, and of course supply of nutrients (feed) – is separate from the animal. This is why we can take the process into the laboratory and grow it without the cow by duplicating what the cow supplies to the ecosystem.

In that diverse microbial ecosystem there are microbes with different jobs to do. The feed digesters work on different types of materials from sugar to fibre, cellulose and even lignin, and the more fibrous the feed then the more methane is produced per kilogram of feed consumed. These fibrolytic microbes degrade the fibre into useful molecules for themselves, and then the cow takes advantage of them for production of fat, meat, and milk. In fact, the largest source of protein the cow uses for itself is actually the protein in the bodies of the microbes growing in the rumen, but a small proportion of protein in the feed slips through the rumen untouched by the microbes. Microbial and rumen bypass protein is then digested further down in the digestive tract after the rumen. The rumen wall is permeable to some types of molecules that a cow uses for its own metabolism, and so large amounts of molecules such as fatty acids are taken from the rumen in this way. However, in doing the difficult task of microbial digestion, some of the organic materials contained in the feed are converted to carbon dioxide and hydrogen that other microbes use in the process of their own metabolism, and this results in production of methane as a waste product. These are methanogens in the Archaea group of microbes. There are many different types of methanogens but they all use the same final step in the process (pathway) in the creation of methane. This final step is where the seaweed works to stop the formation of methane.

How did you come up with the idea that seaweed could reduce the emissions of methane produced by the belching of cows?

A few scientists with a similar idea for different reasons came together to make this happen. For Dr Rob Kinley the search began in Canada where innovative farmer Joe Dorgan had noticed his cows on a beachfront paddock were performing better than the rest, and the only difference was the availability of seaweed on the beach. So he took the seaweed to the landlocked herd and those cows soon caught up. The farmer started a company called North Atlantic Organics to commercialise this great concept but regulations required it be scientifically tested first and that’s where Dr Kinley discovered a 20% reduction in methane emissions. Excited by this finding, a global search for seaweed with even more methane busting potency began. Prof Rocky de Nys and his team at James Cook University (JCU) were aware of the fascinating chemistry of seaweeds and were investigating seaweeds for livestock nutrition with CSIRO scientists in Queensland, Australia. So Dr Kinley joined CSIRO and the program, and the motivated team moved forward in the quest for a natural feed additive to reduce methane and improve feed use efficiency. Everyone involved knew they would find good seaweeds but no one expected a nearly complete elimination of methane emissions.

How is the seaweed delivered to cattle as a feed?

The feed additive is not actually derived from seaweed – it is whole seaweed that has been dried and can be incorporated directly into the feed with the mineral and vitamin mix as a suspension in molasses base or pellet. It is mixed in as the ration is finished just prior to delivery to the feed bunkers or included as a seaweed flake with the roughage. Other technologies are expected to be developed as the feed formulators and livestock producers work together to refine their systems. This depends on the feeding system that varies between feedlot style (high grain), dairy style (medium grain), and grass fed (low grain).

How does it work and what is it exactly that makes the methane-production reduce, almost disappear, due to seaweed-nutrition?

The seaweed contains bioactive compounds and the main player is bromoform. The action occurs at the final step in the methane formation pathway. It prevents methane release through reaction with vitamin B12, causing disruption of the cobamide-dependent methyl transferase, thereby causing enzyme inhibition. The enzyme is unable to complete the pathway and the methane molecule is not emitted. There are many different types of methanogens but they all use the same final step in the process (pathway) in the creation of methane. This final step is where the seaweed works to stop formation of methane.

How much can methane be decreased, and how much seaweed has to be added to the food for this to occur?

We have demonstrated a reduction of over 95% in beef cattle being fed a total mixed ration.  In sheep trials a reduction of 85% in sheep was achieved using a relatively low quality and quantity of seaweed. Less than 0.5% of dietary intake for the beef cattle and 2.0% for the sheep was required to achieve this result. However, as the quality of seaweed improves, less seaweed is required.

With a lot of methane reduction experiments the effect is only temporary before the cow’s rumen microbes adjust to it and start to produce methane in same way again. How true is that and do you think this will be the case with the seaweed?

It is true that many prior attempts to use feed additives to reduce methane emissions from cows have encountered microbial adaptation to the feed additive. However, we fed the seaweed to sheep over 72 days, and there was no adaptation and methane continued to be mitigated, and the same can be said for our beef study conducted over 90 days.  This is probably due to the mode of action, which is not the same as an antibiotic effect.  Typically, adaptation will occur relatively quickly, say a few weeks, but we will be watching closely during long term studies in the future.

What is the limit for how much seaweed can be fed to cattle?

It is not feasible to feed livestock solely on seaweed due to supply and health concerns, but when we do that in the laboratory there is negative impact on digestibility which results in suppression of the system overall. However, at low levels of seaweed (less than 1.0% of feed intake) there are efficiency improvements in the system and dramatic reduction of methane emissions.

The recent feedlot trials demonstrated over 95% methane reduction with seaweed inclusion at 0.20% of OM in the ration.

Do cattle fed seaweed exhibit improved performance, such as increased growth?

We are studying how much of the energy that would be otherwise lost as methane will be conserved in the rumen, and used for beneficial metabolism and converted in to productivity and profit.

Being a high energy molecule, the energy lost as methane represents approximately 10-15% of the feed energy consumed by cows and sheep. Thus, by dramatically reducing the emission of methane from the microbial feed digestion processes, we create potential for an alternative use of the energy, as carbon and hydrogen available for more beneficial metabolism such as meat and milk production. This productivity change has not yet been quantified and is part of upcoming studies in beef and dairy. The increase in free hydrogen expelled from the rumen is part of the progressing research but the amount produced is less than observed with other induced reductions in methane of this magnitude.

Do you already have valid data demonstrating productivity enhancement?

At this stage FutureFeed is not making any claims on productivity. The productivity responses in the CSIRO feedlot trial can be accessed in this paper 

Apart from reducing emissions, what are other incentives for farmers to introduce this feed in to their regime?

Carbon aggregation/credit/tax; productivity enhancement; environmental responsibility; value added green label (low carbon product niche market); organic foods; environmentally friendly; in the near future producers may/will be mandated (forced) to reduce emissions as is already suggested in some regions.

The Australian Government is reviewing current carbon methodologies with a view to considering seaweed as a new approved method.  This will enable the industry to earn Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCU’s) under the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF).  FutureFeed will engage with partners and regulators in overseas markets to commence the development of carbon methodologies for each target market.

Is the type of seaweed you use being mass produced for other purposes?

No. There’s very little commercial cultivation of it. But we expect in the next couple of years that it will be grown on a larger scale in a few places. Right now all that is being grown is being used for research or cosmetic purposes. It is currently available on the market in Hawaii for human consumption under the name Limu Kohu.

Is it feasible to produce enough seaweed to make a significant reduction in global warming by feeding ruminants with seaweed?

Obtaining fresh Asparagopsis is currently our biggest challenge. There is no known production of Asparagopsis taxiformis (tropical version) and only small and experimental production of Asparagopsis armata (temperate version). Development of cultivation techniques is under investigation with a number of interested and capable groups in many regions around the world. The global production of seaweeds exceeds 29 million tonnes and there are vast areas suitable for cultivation within variable regulatory limitations.  The technology to grow seaweeds is longstanding and advanced, and it is not much of a stretch to restructure current systems or develop new farms to grow different seaweeds.  As the growers of Asparagopsis would get better at the cultivation, then the seaweed will get better over time in the same way as every other crop we grow, with improved techniques and selection of the best subsequent seed stock. As a result, in the longer term it is very feasible to reduce the contribution of ruminants to the global greenhouse gas inventory.

FutureFeed is actively engaged with several parties, in Australia and overseas who are moving quickly to establish dedicated seaweed production operations to supply the product to industry.

Are the emissions from cow-belching a real problem?

Cows may emit 150 grams per head per day of Methane (CH4) or over 1.5 tonnes of Carbon (CO2) per year.

On average one cow produces about as much greenhouse gas as one car. Dairy cows produce about 300 grams of methane per day (approx. 3.0 tonnes CO2 per year), and beef cows produce about 150 grams of methane per day (approx. 1.5 tonnes CO2 per year). However, these figures will vary depending on the animals exact diet.

As a greenhouse gas, methane is about 28 times more potent in terms of global warming potential than carbon dioxide and lasts much longer in the atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide can be returned into the carbon cycle through photosynthesis by plants and algae, however methane cannot.

In Australia cows are responsible for about 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture and waste management account for more than 60% of man caused methane globally and cow burps are responsible for about 60% of that contribution, so this is not a small contribution to the global inventory. The emissions inventory is growing and all sectors need to change the business as usual mode of operations.

Feeding a little seaweed to cows is good for them, cleans the ocean where it grows, and dramatically slows the methane loss of feed energy and expenses into the atmosphere, making seaweed feed an incredible commercial and environmental opportunity.

What impact could a diet with an Asparagopsis taxiformis additive have if fed to the majority of the world’s cattle?

The results are dependent on how many of the global cattle and sheep population eat the seaweed. If we had the capability and capacity to feed domestic ruminants, then the agriculture contribution could potentially reduce by 60-70%, maybe more, depending on how the manure is affected. If 10% of domestic ruminant animals ate it then the reduction would be up to about 10% of the total contribution, depending on the diet base of animals that consume Asparagopsis.

What are you working on now, and what happens next?

We have already published proof of concept in sheep (Li et al. 2018), and have recently completed a beef feedlot simulation with Asparagopsis as an additive at four dose levels, thanks to support from MLA and the team at James Cook University who supplied the seaweed for the study.  The beef feedlot publication is awaiting publication and the feed formulation for the study was designed to replicate a feedlot scenario as closely as possible.  Once published, you will find the link to the document in the research section of the website.

We are looking to design a study that compares different quality feeds (grain to roughage ratio) that represent the range of feeding systems in the industry. This differs from the previous and current studies that were designed to determine “how low can we go” with the seaweed content in the diet and still get the desired effect. The seaweed could be tested on a commercial scale after the feedlot scenario study is published, however the barrier to doing that is supply of the seaweed for a study using 1,000 cattle. That type of study would demonstrate that the technology fits into existing commercial operations across the entire lifecycle, including: the cultivation and processing of the seaweed product, delivery, incorporation into the feed ration, feeding and intake, and production of the cattle including productivity improvements, emissions reduction, and final product quality.

How can I get involved?

There is already significant industry interest, and many stakeholders are watching this research develop and discussing how they can get involved. Firstly, we need to develop a commercial partnership to cultivate and supply the seaweed at a scale sufficient enough to supplement even a fraction of the cattle that would benefit.  That is tens of thousands of tonnes of seaweed per year for just 30% of the cattle in Australia.

Is investment needed in seaweed cultivation to scale up this project?

Yes, seaweed supply is the primary barrier.

There is no current commercial cultivation of A. taxiformis or A. armata.  FutureFeed is working with several groups who are rapidly moving to commercial production.  It is envisaged that commercial supply will build from 2021.  Scale production will take a few years to build, however given the performance of the product, demand is expected to be robust.

FutureFeed will work with seaweed suppliers ensuring the required quality levels are met and sustained.

What are the chances this will work on a large scale?

Obtaining commercial quantities of the seaweed remains the largest hurdle. The digestive process of thousands of animals is the same as only a few. The delivery into the diet is relatively simple for livestock fed a concentrate of grain (dairy and feedlots) to receive it every day, so the seaweed can easily be incorporated with that mix.  However, it gets more difficult to deliver into the grass fed systems because the livestock are grazing in paddocks, so development of a mechanism for that type of system is another research project requiring attention.

Seaweed production techniques are well established for other species and we are confident that some of the current production techniques will be applicable to Asparagopsis.  We are encouraged by the rapid progress being made by some groups investing in the space.