Methane Reduction - from Cattle - Via Feed Additives

Published on Thu, 08/04/2022 - 2:40pm

Methane Reduction - from Cattle - Via Feed Additives.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 With the push to reduce methane gas production (and other green- house gases, to combat climate change), much attention has focused on cattle. Methane is produced in the rumen by microbes that ferment and break down feed. Fermentation digestion generates a few byproducts the cow’s body does not utilize, such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Methane-producing microbes use the compounds to form methane gas, which the cow expels by belching.

Methane from cattle has been targeted by climate activists and has become a political issue. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, methane has a warming effect 30 times greater than carbon dioxide, though methane stays in the atmosphere a very short time in comparison. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) claims that agriculture contributes about 40% of total global methane emissions. In September 2021, the U.S. and European Union initiated their joint Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030.

Several companies are marketing or working toward marketing feed additives that can reduce production of methane gas in the rumen. Some are utilizing components of certain types of seaweed, and some are using other ingredients such as essential oils. Many of these products are still in the research and trial stages while others are already available in the marketplace. Here are a few that have attracted attention.

Bovaer is a synthetic feed additive developed by a Dutch company. This product contains 3-NOP, an organic compound that inhibits methane production. A very small dose suppresses the enzyme that triggers methane production in the rumen and is then broken down into com- pounds that are already present in the cow’s digestive system.

This feed additive has been shown to reduce enteric methane emission by approximately 30% for dairy cows and up to 90% for beef cows, with no adverse impact on feed intake, production, product quality, or animal welfare. Bovaer has been used experimentally in Canada, and recently gained regulatory approval in Chili and Brazil. It has approval in the European Union and other countries, but is still waiting on FDA approval for use in the United States.

Asparagopsis seaweed is being researched as a feed additive for its similar ability to halt the enzymatic processes that produce methane. Research at UC-Davis has shown that feeding 3 ounces of seaweed per cow per day dramatically cuts methane production.

Dr. Jennifer Smith (Professor of Marine Biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC-San Di- ego) became interested in methane-mitigating feeds after Australian researchers experimented with different additives that might potentially reduce methane production in the rumen. The trial in Australia looked at different species of seaweed, and one stood out well above the others in its reduction of methane production.

“This is the red algae Asparagopsis taxiformis, and after that study was published in 2014, live- stock scientists became interested in testing with live animals. This led to the first studies at UC-Davis, feeding cattle the dried, powdered seaweed,” says Smith.

A dairy trial, feeding seaweed for 30 days, showed consistent results —about 50% reduction in methane —feeding very small amounts. In this study the seaweed fed was about 1% of total dry-matter intake, and subsequent studies have fed as low as 0.25% with significant methane reduction.

“These trials have shown that feeding seaweed also makes the animals more feed efficient. Methane is a waste product (from digestion breakdown), and this carbon-based molecule is no longer released as waste; the carbon is used in the animal’s metabolism. This is an added benefit when feeding a seaweed supplement.”

Smith is working with a start-up company based in Hawaii. “Blue Ocean Barns is using the results of some of my research, and over time we hope to improve and increase their production potential and strain performance of this feed additive.”

Optimism about seaweed as a methane-reducing feed additive has stimulated development of Asparagopsis farms on the coasts of Australia, Hawaii and North America. The California Air Resources Board believes feed additives could play a role in helping the state reach its goal of 40% reduction of green- house gas emissions by 2030. One organic dairy producer in Marin County, California received approval last fall to conduct a trial of a seaweed-derived feed additive called Brominata, made from Asparagopsis taxiformis.

After this successful trial, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) in June 2022 authorized commercial use of this seaweed-based supplement as a digestive aid for cattle. CDFA’s Safe Animal Feed Education Program provided technical assistance, feed sampling, and analysis during the trial and Brominata has been ap- proved as Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The next step is to apply for FDA approval so Brominata can officially claim to reduce methane emissions and be made available to farmers across the U.S. Brominata is grown in a land-based cultivation system in Hawaii, and Blue Ocean Barns is working on scaling up production.

Another type of feed additive is in early-stage development by a New Zealand-based dairy processing company. This additive has been named Kowbucha — word twist on the fermented beverage, kombucha. The Fonterra Cooperative Group Ltd. Fonterra is utilizing cultures traditionally used for cheese and yogurt production, to develop a fermented bovine cock- tail to alter digestive processes in the rumen that produce methane.

The feed additive that’s been around the longest is Agolin® Ruminant. This plant-based product utilizes a blend of selected essential oils (such as cilantro and extracts from clove) and their compounds and is currently being fed to over 2 million dairy cows around the world including 300,000 to 400,000 in the U.S. To develop Agolin, researchers tested more than 100 different plant extracts to determine their effects on rumen microbes, fat and protein in milk, feed efficiency and ruminant methane production. Agolin products are the result of more than 30 years of research into essential oil compounds developed for dairy, beef, swine and poultry. In cattle, this product alters the rumen bacterial population. Peter Williams, one of the partners in Feedworks USA Ltd., the distributors of Agolin in the U.S., says that when carbohydrates enter the rumen they are broken down by microbes, producing energy for growth and milk. “But they also produce methane,” he says, “much of which is belched out and lost – which represents a waste of energy. If we are able to capture some of that methane, we can convert it to milk production. This is one of the modes of action of Agolin.”

It only takes one gram per cow per day in the feed and costs between 4 and 6 cents per cow per day. “For that small investment, dairies are getting back 50 to 70 cents per cow per day, in better performance and milk production, even without additional payment for reducing their carbon footprint. We are working with a number of major food companies, including Barry Callebaut, the largest chocolate manufacturer in the world. In conjunction with them, Agolin is registered with the Verified Carbon Standard and is awaiting final validation; we expect to start making payments to dairies for carbon reductions they get by using Agolin in the next few weeks,” says Williams.

Agolin has been on the market since 2007, when it was launched as an energy-corrected milk and feed efficiency product. “In the past few years, the emphasis given to methane reduction has certainly created additional interest in the product,” says Williams.