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Seaweed – a cattle delicacy?

Jim Walker for Progressive Cattle Published on 26 February 2021

It is a sea otter delicacy. I guess they like a salad as much as the next carnivore (yes, their main diet is sea urchins and crabs). But, what attraction does red seaweed, Asparagopsis taxiformis, have for humans and, more particularly, for beef and dairy cattle, you may ask?

Well, I’ll tell you. It could be a miracle, inexpensive, high-protein feed supplement that naturally reduces up to 90% of methane emissions from cattle. And, it doesn’t take much, just 0.2-0.4 of 1% of total daily cattle food intake. Interestingly, this was discovered by accident. Ranchers in Australia were looking for a more-readily available forage for their herds and saw mounds of seaweed washing up on their shores. Then professor Tim Flannery with the University of Melbourne began experimenting with the readily available plant and found it significantly reduced the amount of methane cattle belched.

If this proves true, it would at least remove one argument the environmentalists have against beef and dairy production. We will be hard-pressed to ever find common ground with animal-rights enthusiasts, as their sole goal is to put all animal harvesters out of business. But, if simply including just 0.2%-0.4% of freeze-dried, ground red seaweed in our cattle feed supplements significantly reduces our industry’s contribution to global warming, we would certainly be interested in looking into it, wouldn’t we? It might even become a bovine delicacy since, growing naturally in the ocean, it also contains some beneficial sea salt. Also, the growing seaweed helps our oceans and climate by sequestering carbon dioxide that the plants suck up in the water as food. The cattle industry could actually claim to be aiding the environment with our operations – who would have thought?

Now, don’t run out and start asking your feed supplier for red seaweed just yet, as the FDA has not approved the inclusion of red seaweed in agricultural feed until it can perform more tests to determine the long-term effects, if any, seaweed may have on the digestive rumen of cattle and all products from such cattle. Not to mention, mass production by red seaweed farms would have to be ramped up to meet quality and quantity demands (which is already beginning to grow), and even after all that, the product must still make economic sense to acquire and utilize by the average beef or dairy producer. Early indications are that the FDA will follow suit with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which have already approved including red seaweed in animal feed, and they are seeing startling results, including generally all-around healthier animals. And, humans in the Hawaiian Islands have been eating red seaweed for centuries, which has been prized by Hawaiian royalty.

I can already hear you old curmudgeons out there saying, “This change is just gonna cost me more money.” But, let’s not forget that bloat and trapped gas in cattle is a continuous and common problem for producers, especially those that rely heavily on roughage and pasture grasses, as opposed to balanced feed supplements. While feed is costlier, it does cause less bloat and gas than grasses. And, with the proper supplements in feed – such as red seaweed – they can break down methane in the stomach, thus benefitting cattle’s metabolism and actually enabling their bodies to use the remaining gasses more efficiently for glucose production, resulting in solid weight gain and more milk production. If feed supplements reduce methane emissions while at the same time increasing weight gain and milk production, then I would call that a win-win proposition. But, it will require a slight change in the average producer’s thinking and way of doing business.

I have said it before, and it bears repeating here, feed supplements are not just for getting through the winter months – they provide year-round benefits when forage nutrition declines, causing declining animal weights, declining milk production and failures to breed back. If we can get supplements to target methane reduction while including a high percent of easily digestible carbohydrates, and be cost-effective to us average producers, then the slight increase in feeding costs, if any, could provide dividends on the back end (no pun intended) when it comes time to sell our products. And, this new operating model may enable producers to actually use less feed and save money to achieve even better results. Now, whether it may also work on the humans you live with, who knows.

As always, my advice is to grow your herd and keep them (and yourself) healthy, for land’s sake!  end mark

Jim Walker is a farmer, rancher and all-around thorn-in-the-side with Land's Feed Warehouse in Grand Saline, Texas, who opines on current events affecting the cattle industry. Email Jim Walker.