Algae supplements; coming soon to a dairy farm near you?

Published on Tue, 04/17/2018 - 12:26pm

 Algae supplements; Coming soon to a dairy farm near you?

 By Michael Cox for American Dairymen Magazine

 It may seem unlikely that the green pond scum often found floating in water troughs on warm summer days could one day be a mainstream feed supplement source for dairy cows, but that day may be coming closer than we think. Researchers across the globe have found success with microalgae supplements in beef, swine and poultry sectors and are now turning their attention to microalgae use in the dairy industry.

Microalgae is a highly nutritious feedstuff, that contains large amounts of lipids, proteins, vitamins and minerals. The protein content of some algae can reach 70 percent, making it a superior protein supplement source compared to 40 percent protein soybeans. Feed-grade algae is typically grown in 8 inch deep, nutrient rich ponds, before being harvested and dried before feeding.  The growing process is quite fast, as algae can double their biomass on a daily basis. A single hectare of algae pond can produce up to 50 ton of algae feed per annum. This high level of production can offer a year-round feed supply of lipids and proteins from a much smaller area of land than would be needed to grow crops providing the same amount of nutrients.  

Human benefits
Part of the reason behind the interest in researching algae products is the enormous benefits to human health that can be gained from consuming animal products raised on algae supplements. Livestock supplemented with algae produce higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids in milk and meat products, than found in animals raised on more traditional diets. Increasing Omega 3 fatty acids in the foods we eat is a worthy goal for the food industry. Omega 3 fatty acids are a form of essential long chain fatty acids and can help alleviate health issues such as blood pressure, asthma and diabetes. However, a large proportion of the population fail to meet their recommended daily intake of long chain fatty acids. In the United Kingdom, approximately one third of the adult population does not consume enough daily long-chain fatty acids. Based on this finding, scientists with the State research body, AFBI, recently carried out a study to see if algae supplements fed to dairy cows would transfer increased levels of long-chain fatty acids to the cow’s milk. The study involved feeding a range of algae supplements; from a control group of cows receiving 0g/day, to a high supplement group receiving 225g/day. Milk samples were collected weekly from the cow groups and tested for long chain fatty acid levels. The results showed a strong and positive relationship between algae supplementation and long chain fatty acid content in milk, with the ‘high supplement’ cows producing milk with 18 times more Omega 3 content than the control group. Such positive results could lead to the development of ‘high-health’ dairy products in the future. These niche products would presumably command a higher market price premium and potentially, a bonus payment could be made to dairymen producing such ‘high-health’ milk.

Animal benefits
Australia has been to the forefront in pioneering algae feed supplements for livestock. While most of the work to date has focused on the swine and poultry sectors, scientists with the University of Tasmania carried out algae feed trials on dairy cows during 2017. The trial was the first of it’s kind in the world and looked at the relationship between ‘Spirulina’ algae supplementation and body condition score of pasture based dairy cows. Spirulina is an edible, single cell algae that is commercially available worldwide. The study found algae supplemented cows were 8-11% fatter than non-supplemented cows on a similar diet. It is believed that the algae acts as a high-lipid source in the cows diet. Lipids are typically 2.5 times more energy dense than carbohydrates and proteins. For early-lactation, high-producing dairy cows, algae may help to reduce the negative energy balance and associated body condition score loss.  Further research by Kulpys et al, found that a 200g/cow/day supplementation of Spirulina to pasture only dairy cows resulted in an increase of 6kg milk output per cow.

Potential issues   
Although the benefits of algae feedstuffs appear to be many, care must be taken to limit the amount of fat in the diet. Dietary fat of over 10 percent in dairy cow rations can have negative effects on rumen fermentation function. Poor rumen function can then lead to depressed volatile fatty acid production, milk yield and milk fat content.
Although algae products have been available for several years, it is still early days in research and development of a robust algae supplementation feeding program for dairy cows. However, based on initial results, the future looks very bright for the humble ‘pond scum’ algae.