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Microalgae Byproduct Offers Sustainable Alternative for Feeding Cattle

Microalgae are tiny organisms that are highly adaptable, enabling them to flourish in a wide variety of habitats ranging from wastelands to wetlands, to saltwater environments, and everything in-between. While they grow rapidly in sunlight, they are not limited by light availability, and can survive in conditions devoid of sunlight; they also do well in environments that have high levels of nitrates and phosphates.

The biotech industry is rapidly taking advantage of microalgae’s unique adaptability, utilizing it for the development of biofuels, organic cosmetics and beauty products, food supplements, and as a feed for aquaculture. Now livestock scientists are showing a keen interest in using microalgae as a sustainable feedstock and protein supplement for cattle.

Commercially grown microalgae is cultivated under controlled conditions and harvested for the valuable oils contained within their cells. Once the oil is extracted from the algae, the remaining dry cell wall is typically burned or discarded as waste. It is this waste byproduct of the algal crop that the researchers are interested in as a potential feedstuff for ruminants.

A team of scientists from Montana State and Iowa State Universities, recently assessed the nutritional value of an algal-based meal blend consisting of de-oiled algae (57%) mixed with soya hulls. They looked at the digestibility of the algae meal blend compared to hay and soya hulls; and conducted experiments to see if cattle would readily feed on algal-based meal; how long the meal remained in the gut compared to other feedstuffs; and what effect this feed had on growth rates of growing calves.

The results of this preliminary study, which was published in the Journal of Animal Science (June 2015), shows that the potential for using algae as a high-energy feedstock for cattle is promising. According to Dr. Stephanie Hansen, Assistant Professor at Iowa State University and co-author of the paper, the team has applied for FDA approval of the product, and is hoping that by 2016, the product will be available for cattlemen to incorporate into their feed rations. She anticipates that algal-based meal will be able to compete price-wise with corn, offering an economical and sustainable alternative.

The scientists have also completed two studies assessing digestibility of algal-based meal over soya hulls and corn in sheep. While these and other studies are still in the early experimental stages, the viability of commercially producing algal products to feed livestock is not far off.

"The sustainability of algae production is pretty promising," Hansen said. "As we move into the next generation of cattle feeding and feedstuffs, it will be interesting to see where present and future versions of algae meal place themselves in the market."

References & Further Reading

Perez-Garcia, O., Escalante, F.M., de-Bashan, L.E., & Bashan, Y. (2011.) Heterotrophic cultures of microalgae: Metabolism and potential products. Water Research, 45(1), 11-36.
Van Emon, M., Loy, D., & Hansen, S. (2015). Determining the preference, in vitro digestibility, in situ disappearance, and grower period performance of steers fed a novel algae meal derived from heterotrophic microalgae. Journal of Animal Science, 94(6).
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