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Could feeding cows seaweed be the key to combating climate change?

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Posted at 12:43 PM, Nov 22, 2021

LEE, N.H. — As the final days of fall linger, life on the farm grows a bit colder and quieter, but for Ryan Courtwright, there is still plenty of work to be done.

Courtwright is responsible for overseeing a 300-acre farm in Lee, New Hampshire. While it might look like any other commercial dairy operation, the land is owned by the University of New Hampshire. Courtwright is an employee of the university and in a way, so are these dairy cows.

Most of their lives are monitored for various research studies. One of the most recent studies is looking at how much methane these cows produce. Their methane output is measured by a small machine. Grain is placed inside the machine and as cows place their heads inside to eat, methane measurements are taken.

“There’s more methane coming from the front end of the cow than the rear end,” Courtwright said with a bit of a smile on his face.

But what these cows likely don’t realize, is that they’re on the front lines of combating climate change.

Andre Brito is a researcher at UNH and has spent the last few years feeding cows seaweed in various forms or another. What he and his team have found is that by adding even a small amount of seaweed into a cow's diet, they can reduce the amount of methane cows produce by up to 20%.

“Not necessarily replace all the hay in the diet. We are basically replacing small amounts of what’s fed to dairy cows,” Brito said.

The methane from these cows is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The harm those gasses are doing to the atmosphere is profound. By some estimates, 25% of all methane is produced directly from fermentation by cows.

“We should be looking at this now. It’s very important to be looking at solutions right now,” he added.

For farmers, the best part of all this is that even by supplementing just small amounts of seaweed into these cows’ diets, milk production and milk quality remained incredibly high.

Over the next few years, Brito and his team are hoping to study various kinds of seaweed, and measure how different types of the plant impact methane production.