New Zealand dairy cooperative, Fonterra, is to expand a trial which uses seaweed to reduce methane emissions from cows.

In 2020, Fonterra entered a partnership with Sea Forest to see if using Asparagopsis seaweed as a supplement feed for dairy cows could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

The trial is now entering its next phase including a new agreement allowing Fonterra farmers first access to this potential new seaweed solution.

Methods to reduce methane emissions

Right through its supply chain, Fonterra has said that it is continuously looking for more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to produce and distribute dairy foods.

"We believe there will be no single solution to the methane challenge, so we are investigating a number of different options," the company stated. 

Conducting one of the only trials of feeding Asparagopsis to dairy herds in the southern hemisphere, Fonterra is now expanding the trial to include more farms. 

Along with this new phase, is a new agreement with Sea Forest allowing all Fonterra farmers globally to get first access to the Asparagopsis solution. 

This means if the trial proves successful and the product is ready to go, Fonterra farmers will be at the front of the queue. 

Fonterra general manager of sustainability APAC, Jack Holden, said the grass-fed farming model makes Fonterra one of the most carbon efficient producers of dairy in the world.

"However, we have an aspiration to be 'net zero' by 2050 and are investing in R&D [research and development] and partnerships to help find a solution to reducing methane emissions," Holden said.

Seaweed solution

Fonterra noted that CSIRO research has shown that Asparagopsis seaweed has the potential to reduce emissions by over 80% in laboratory trials.

“As with all methane solutions we’re trialling, what we need to find out is whether we can use this supplement in a way that is safe for cows, safe for consumers and to ensure that there is no impact on milk taste or quality," Holden continued. 

The Asparagopsis seaweed trial has taken place on Richard Gardner’s Annandale farm in the midlands of Tasmania. It was chosen not only because Tasmania has a suitable climate, but Richard has a well-established flexible feeding and milking system.

"Asparagopsis seaweed looks like it could be the first viable option we have had to achieve major emission reductions, and although it’s early days, it could potentially be part of the future sustainability of our industry,” Richard explained.

Image Fonterra video

On Richard’s farm, 900 of his dairy cows have been fed small amounts of the seaweed supplement.

During the trial, researchers extensively tested milk for seaweed residues. They have also focused heavily on animal health concerns.

The company compared milk production with cows who were not fed the seaweed supplement, and the results indicated that production was unchanged. 

Use as a supplement

Another focus of the trial has been working out how practical it is to use this supplement as part of normal operations, which Jack Holden said is “critical because it needs to be easy to implement and beneficial for farmers if we want it to be widely adopted".

Based on the outcomes, Fonterra has said that it is now ready to take the trial to the next stage, where it will be expanded to include multiple farms.

Sea Forest is one of a few licenced producers of Asparagopsis for cattle feed. The licences are issued by Future Feed which is the commercial joint venture that owns the intellectual property. 

Sea Forest CEO and founder, Sam Elsom, has said that last year the company bought an additional 30ha farm as it dramatically increases its production of the seaweed supplement.  

Asparagopsis is a common seaweed native to the waters of Tasmania and New Zealand, and we’re the first in the world to cultivate it at a commercial scale through both marine and land-based aquaculture," he said.

“We needed a food industry partner to help us take this to a commercial scale, and we partnered with Fonterra because of its commitment to sustainability and innovation. 

“We're looking forward to working with Fonterra on the next phase, and although we’re still in trial phases, we believe this has potential."

Fonterra carbon targets

Fonterra said that the Asparagopsis seaweed trial in Australia is part of its wider efforts to tackle emissions and its aspiration to be 'net zero' carbon by 2050.   

The cooperative is currently carrying out a number of other trials in this area including: 

  • Tapping into its large collection of dairy cultures to create new fermentations, which could inhibit the methanogens that create methane in cows;
  • Working with Royal DSM to test whether DSM’s feed additive product Bovaer, which reduces methane emissions from cows by over 30% in non-pasture-based farming systems, can do the same in New Zealand’s pasture-based farming systems;
  • With MPI and DairyNZ, expanding a trial with Nestle to include plantain in a cow’s diet to reduce the amount of nitrogen produced, reducing carbon emissions and improving freshwater quality.