Research into Cattle Methane Solutions Bolstered by $5 Million Grant


A new $5 million grant will support the efforts of Bigelow Laboratory scientists to reduce methane emission by cattle – one of the largest human-caused sources of the greenhouse gas. The researchers are leading a team of partners from throughout the Northeast that hopes to use algae-based feed supplements to reduce cattle’s environmental impact.

Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Cows burp out significant amounts of methane as part of their natural digestive process. However, research from Bigelow Laboratory has shown that adding algae additives to their diet can greatly reduce these emissions. Given the size and scope of the dairy and beef industries, this could have a major global impact.

Bigelow Laboratory began work on this issue in 2019 with a grant from the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund. The new grant from the organization will build upon the project’s success to date – and add critical new environmental impact components to the effort to develop algae-based feed supplements.

“We have developed ways to interrupt the mechanisms behind cattle’s methane emissions,” said Nichole Price, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory and the project lead. “Now we're going to figure out how to optimize our strategy and apply it in a way that can work globally.”

The new funding allows the researchers to explore solutions to the largest roadblock to the approach: scalability. The team has demonstrated success with feed trials of individual herds, but addressing the emissions on a signal farm won’t make a dent in the emissions of the more than one billion cows on the planet. In order to make a real difference, the supplement must be able to be produced in large quantities and at a reasonable enough cost.

“Other groups’ research on this idea has primarily focused on a single species of seaweed that has the right effect on methane, but could not be produced at the scale needed to address this problem,” Price said. “A workable solution needs to be accessible to everyone.”

In their search for a solution, Price and her team are focused on one of the world’s most productive marine ecosystems – the Gulf of Maine. Maine is home to more than 250 species of seaweed, a burgeoning aquaculture industry, and Bigelow Laboratory’s repository of algal strains from all over the globe. These elements make it an ideal testing ground for exploring algal solutions that can be applied worldwide.

The new funding allows the team to look into algae solutions that could realistically be produced in the quantities needed to address the global issue and create an accessible, environmentally-friendly product.

“This grant allows us to take the critical next steps in solving this problem,” Price said. “We believe that the science behind this idea is sound, but the true challenge is developing a realistic solution that can address this problem of such an incredible magnitude.”

A wide variety of expertise is needed, and Price has forged new collaborations with partners from research, industry, and academia. NutraSteward is helping the team navigate theFDA certification process and The William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute will help complete the necessary feed trials. Students and faculty from Colby College are assisting with economics research, and collaborators from Clarkson University are evaluating the net carbon impact of the entire proposed solutions – from growing seaweed to packaging the products.

“The new parts of this project will complement our existing search for the right seaweed solution,” Price said, “and enable us to look into some creative ways that we can use what we’re learning to actually solve this global problem.”

Photo courtesy of Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment.