Texas A&M has joined an alliance to find new ways to help feed the world that began at New Mexico State University. This group of schools is trying to find alternate ways of feeding livestock that requires less agriculture than the current methods. The alliance is trying to limit the amount of grassland needed to sustain large herds of cattle by feeding them algae.
In this study, the role of Texas A&M is less scientific than that of some of the other contributors. They are mostly operating as a testing ground thanks to the large cattle population in the lone star state. They are testing a single strain of algae on a small sampling of cattle to determine whether or not the algae offers a viable nutritional alternative to grazing or the most modern stockyard feeding methods.
The associate New Mexican professor that began the study, Shanna Ivey, is working in conjunction with the Department of Animal and Range Science with multiple strains of algae, but has found a faster, more effective research method that doesn’t require the use of any animals. Rather than performing live trials, she is using a lab fermentation method that uses ruminal fluid taken from cows.
“We have continuous flow fermenters that are basically an artificial rumen,” she said. “For our study, we require only two kilograms of material whereas, to do an animal study would take a ton of material.”
Her method is far more expedient in making an analysis, while using the live trials is less cost effective, and notably slower, but gives real world results.
The thought is that since algae can be used as biofuel, perhaps the proper strain can be found that can provide enough energy to animals. The current algal strains that Ivey is using come from various parts of the country so that she can make the best hypothesis in which, if any, is likely to provide a potential nutrient for livestock. Right now, two of her primary strains come from the Fabian Garcia Science Center and a Pecos, Texas algae farm.
Once the principle algae is grown it is shipped to Michigan where the oil is extracted and the resulting co-product is taken out and sent to the various members of the alliance for their trials.
“This co-product is high in protein,” said Ivey. “It’s about 25 to 30 percent crude protein which is good for livestock. It seems to also have some carbohydrates as well, and some residual oil that can be used as energy.”
Ideally the algae will provide sufficient protein to be mixed into the feed regiment of livestock. So far, they have run into several problems. The most notable issue is that the co-product that is derived from the algae is not consistent. It has a high rate of variance in the protein and nutrients it provides. From one batch to the next it is unpredictable whether or not the algal co-product will be rich enough in proteins to be useful.
“So far, we have learned that the algal byproduct is very strain dependent,” said Ivey. “Depending on what kind of algal strain is being grown affects the quality of the co-product. The quality is also affected by the method of harvesting, and also how the oil is extracted. Right now, this is a young industry so there are a lot of different things we are looking at as far as methods of growing, harvesting and extracting.”
The algae is compared against soybean meal when it comes to a high protein alternative. So far the soybeans have proven far more useful than anything produced by Ivey or the alliance. Soybeans consistently have a 40% crude protein ration in the co-product, 10-15% higher than the best algal derivatives.
The work goes on as the researchers hope to parley this burgeoning technology into something more useful than what is currently available.