Opinion: Seaweed as a feedstock supplement

By: Trevor Whittington

Presented by

WAFarmers President Trevor Whittington provides a reality check on seaweed as a feedstock supplement, in his regular opinion column in Farms & Farm Machinery

Opinion: Seaweed as a feedstock supplement
Asparagopsis can reduce methane levels in cows by between 80 and 99 per cent

Now most farmers will have read about the hype of Asparagopsis, the native Australian seaweed that neutralises the methane emissions from cattle. 

What they won’t have read about is why they are not seeing it on the list of products provided by their local stock feed agent.

The option of adding seaweed supplements to cattle was first discovered by a Canadian farmer in 2013, who noticed that his cattle in the paddocks adjacent to the beaches were eating dried kelp and were achieving higher levels of productivity than cattle positioned further inland.   

Productivity improvements were across the board but things got really exciting when it was discovered that the chemical bromoform (CHBr3) disrupts the chemical reaction between enzymes and vitamin B12, which is a key contributor to the production of methane in ruminant stomachs. 

Today CSIRO has the patent on FutureFeed – the Australian version of the feed supplement which consists of whole Asparagopsis in either one of two species – with the main distinction that taxiformis thrives in the northern waters and armata thrives in the southern cooler waters around Australia.  

Using 2 per cent of dried seaweed as a dietary supplement can reduce methane levels by between 80 and 99 per cent, thereby having a material impact on the 10 per cent of emissions that livestock are responsible for in Australia. 

Having recently signed up to becoming net zero by 2050, the potential market for feed supplements is huge as there are around a million cattle in feedlots across the country plus 1.5 million cows in the national dairy herd.

Doing some rough calculations, the average cow of 500kg eats 4 per cent of its mass in dry matter a day or 20kg, and a 2 per cent supplement equals 400g – multiplied by 2.5m cattle and we end up with a market requirement of 1,000,000kg a day, which equates to a thousand tonnes daily or 365,000 tonnes of dried seaweed a year.

That’s a lot of seaweed but not such a big deal if you consider global production of around 35 million tonnes, with China and Indonesia accounting for 30 million tonnes annually.

However, Asparagopsis is not commercially farmed in Asia. 

The local seaweed varieties are mostly being used for human consumption, going into local salads, soups and garnishes plus other commercial and medical products. To gear up to produce Asparagopsis would require a massive investment in quality control systems from thousands of small producers if it was going to supply the Australian market.

The cost of wild-harvest Asparagopsis in Australia is currently predicted to be approximately A$200 a kg or $200,000 a tonne, which probably explains why the breathless hype is all hot air, sort of like what we are seeing with hydrogen as the new fuel for farmers tractors – it makes for a good headline.

Future Feed knows it needs to get the price down to less than A$5/kg; about the global price of dried seaweed.

But even at that price, if you are paying $500 a tonne for your stock feed then adding 2 per cent (20kg) of Asparagopsis at $5/kg adds 20% ($100 per tonne) to your $500 feed bill. 

Funny how no one talks about the costs when it comes to climate mitigation. Ever noticed how power prices have doubled with the rollout of wind and solar farms, but all the conversation is on the benefits and not the costs?

As for local production of Asparagopsis any time soon, don’t hold your breath.

At 20 tonnes to the hectare out of the ocean of dried seaweed product, the 365,000 tonnes of supplement will require 18,250 hectares of ocean water leases plus massive onshore support facilities.

No problem: Australia has heaps of ocean, and a few small marinas dotted around the coast. Only problem is, the state governments are extremely reluctant to give anyone access to aquaculture leases as proponents usually want leases that are right in the middle of highly sensitive protected waters around reefs and islands.

Think of the Green screams of protest coming with dropping hundreds of thousands of kilometres of rope into the water around the Great Barrier Reef.

As for timelines, Western Australia has recently issued 2,500ha of aquaculture lease at the Abrolhos, 60km west of Geraldton, but it took 10 years of work to get the approvals through the various departments and the conditions attached make it almost impossible to comply.

Then there is the question of the capital and labour requirements.

A Danish study in 2013 calculated that a 4,000ha ocean-based seaweed farm facility producing 20 tonnes per hectare would require initial investment costs of US$138,000 (A$192,595) per hectare (US$552 million [A$770.4 million] for the 4,000ha property) for the buoys, moorings boats and processing, plus annual labour costs of over US$5,000 (around A$7,000) per hectare, leading to annual losses of US$23,834 (A$33,262) per hectare.

Which means all roads are likely to lead to China and Indonesia to produce Asparagopsis.

Assuming deals are done, they will still need to get the price down to $5/kg delivered on farm in Australia and growers will need to be absolutely confident in the quality and purity of the product they are importing and feeding to their animals, plus consumers convinced to pay more for their carbon neutral meat and milk.  

My guess is that, at best, seaweed for cows will be no more than a niche market by 2030, no different to what organic meat and milk is today.

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