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Seaweed to help cows fart less methane

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Research

Dr Tony Parker stands behind harvested seaweed in North Queensland, which could be the secret to reducing cattle methane emissions.

Credit: Prof. Rocky de Nys

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Farting cows may produce less methane if fed on a diet of seaweed, Australian researchers have said.

The 'Reef and Beef' project, as it is dubbed, is a Queensland-based venture attempting to reduce the impact of Australia's cattle industry on global warming. As a bonus, it will also provide an economic motive for eco-friendly disposal of aquaculture waste.

"Our project aims to decrease methane emissions by cattle, and provide a new product from aquaculture," said lead researcher Tony Parker, a livestock nutritionist from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.

"Better management of aquaculture, a new protein source for cattle farmers to choose from and cleaner water being discharged into the Inner Great Barrier Reef are further benefits," he added.

Farts and burps from cows are thought to account for around 20 per cent of the world's human-related methane emissions. Methane is a more damaging greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, giving our taste for beef and dairy a huge global warming footprint.

Cows produce vast quantities of methane due to the poor quality of their diet, which is typically high in indigestible types of fibre. Microbes in the cow's gut ferment and break down this fibre, producing - in addition to valuable energy and nutrients for the cow - lots of gas.

Parker got the idea of feeding seaweed to cows after hearing about sheep which live on marine plants.

"Orkney sheep are ruminants that live off seaweed and they do very well on such a diet - so the obvious question is, why can't cows?" he said.

Seaweed has less cellulose and more starch than grass, making it easier for cows to digest. Less fermentation is required, and therefore, Parker hopes, less methane is produced.

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