Tollef Olson, president of Ocean's Balance, harvests kelp in Casco Bay in this 2017 file photo. Researchers at Bigelow Laboratory in Boothbay are among scientists in Maine and elsewhere in New England conducting research on whether Maine seaweed might be developed into an additive for cow feed that will help reduce methane emissions by getting cows to burp less. Cows are the top human-managed source for methane, a greenhouse gas that has contributed to global warming. Credit: Kathleen Pierce

Cow burps are a major contributor to global warming, so researchers in Maine and elsewhere in New England are working on something that could get the animals to burp less: a seaweed-based product to add to cow feed, producing an ingredient mix that calms down those bovine digestive tracts.

The researchers at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay and the University of Vermont will team up over the next few years to figure out which varieties of seaweed do the best job of helping cows produce less methane as they digest their food. They hope to narrow down the varieties through lab tests, then tests on live cows. They’re also considering the economics of the additive to figure out if farmers benefit, in addition to the environment.

At Bigelow, researchers can test different seaweed varieties for the chemical compounds that they think will help cows produce less methane as they digest their food. Now, with a $3 million grant from the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund, they plan to collaborate with the University of Vermont to test a variety of seaweeds through lab tests with simulated cow digestive systems to identify the most promising types of the algae.

The same grant will then help fund field tests for those seaweed varieties, according to Nichole Price, a senior research scientist at Bigelow who directs the lab’s Center for Seafood Solutions. Cows at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport and at the University of New Hampshire will be fed test samples of seaweed additive in 2020 and 2021.

“We are focusing on native Maine seaweeds,” Price said, adding that the lab will grow some of the algae but also will test seaweed collected in the wild. “Some wild-harvested species already are used in cow feeds.”

What’s already on the market, however, is geared toward animal health rather than environmental protection, she said. Any seaweed additive that proves to help reduce bovine methane emissions also will have to help protect the health of cows, she said, so farmers directly benefit.

“An altruistic benefit isn’t going to pay the bills,” Price said, adding that dairy farming — the dominant type of cattle farming in New England — has “razor-thin” margins.

To that end Michael Donihue, an economics professor at Colby College, also will be involved in the project to see if the final product might be cost-effective for farmers, Price said.

Researchers expect that any seaweed used to reduce the volume of cow burps will be cultivated instead of wild-harvested, according to Price. Not only has a recent court decision in Maine placed limits on harvesters’ access to wild seaweed, but cultivating the algae is a better way to ensure a steady supply of the needed seaweed varieties.

Cultivated seaweed tends to be more expensive, Price acknowledged, but seaweed growers and cattle farmers who produce or use methane-reducing dietary supplements could end up being eligible for carbon tax benefits to help reduce the cost.

Seaweed won’t replace the grass or grain that most cows eat now for a few reasons, Price said. Only a small amount of seaweed in a cow’s diet is needed for the desired result, she said, which is good because seaweed cannot be harvested or farmed at volumes large enough to become a primary food source for cattle farmers. Plus, Price added, seaweed contains a lot of iodine, and cows can consume only so much of it before it becomes unhealthy.

And it is unlikely that one type of seaweed will prove the “silver-bullet” that soothes cow bellies across the globe, she said.

There has been some testing done already on “confinement herds” — cows that are confined and fed a consistent, prepared diet of feed that usually is a blend of grain, corn, soy beans and other food — but little has been done with pasture-fed cows, which typically eat grass as a significant portion of their diet, according to Price. The types of grass and other wild vegetation eaten by pasture cows varies from one farm to the next, and from year to year or season to season, which can make it more difficult to get a handle on how their food is making them burp.

In New England, near where Maine seaweeds would be grown for the purpose, most cows are used for producing milk rather than beef — thanks to the high number of dairy cattle in Vermont — and many of them are pasture-fed. For this reason, Price said, the lab’s research will focus on serving dairy herds.

“These trials are expensive and complicated to conduct,” she said of having live cows eat the test product and then gauging the results. “That’s why we have four pasture trials planned.”

The research raises some interesting possibilities for Maine’s seaweed harvesters, said Dave Preston of Ocean Organics in Waldoboro and president of the Maine Seaweed Council, but it is too early to know what kind of impact it could have.

Maine seaweed harvesters already sell a significant amount of their rockweed for use as a dietary health supplement for cows, he said, and it would be “great” to have another product to sell to the same customer base.

Even if the research doesn’t yield the results some people are hoping for, Preston said, just the fact that serious, well-funded research is happening in Maine bodes well for the state’s seaweed industry, which gathered or grew $920,000 worth of seaweed in 2018, all but $100,000 of which was in the form of wild rockweed.

“It is exciting stuff,” Preston said. “We love that this research is going on.”

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....