SEACOW POND, P.E.I. — A P.E.I. dairy farmer's attempt to save money on feed — he fed his cows seaweed from a nearby beach — has led to a discovery that could bring a substantial reduction in greenhouse gases worldwide.
A researcher found the seaweed reduced the methane in the cows' burps and farts, a key contributor to climate change.
"Considering that agriculture is one of the big contributors to the global greenhouse gas inventory, it's pretty huge,'' said agricultural scientist Rob Kinley.
More than 10 years ago, Joe Dorgan was a dairy farmer in Seacow Pond, near the northwestern tip of the province, with many of his cows grazing near the shore.
The methane in cows' burps and farts is a key contributor to climate change. (Photo: CP)
He decided to convert to an organic dairy farm and, as a way to save money, he started feeding seaweed to the cows as their source of minerals and vitamins.
"You live right on the beach here and our ancestors used seaweed for everything, for their animals, for their fertilizer, the whole thing,'' he said.
The seaweed is plentiful and washes up on the local beaches where it is gathered using rakes hauled by horses.
"This is 100 per cent natural. As the storms toss it ashore on the beach, we gather it, dry it, process it and feed it,'' he said.
Started selling seaweed product to other farmers
Dorgan said the seaweed-fed cows were healthier and produced more milk. That's when the light went on and he saw a business opportunity.
He sold his herd, and sought to get his seaweed product approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for sale to other farmers.
Kinley, then at Dalhousie University's faculty of Agriculture in Truro, N.S., was asked to test the animal feed that Dorgan was producing.
Kinley discovered that the product reduced the methane in the cows' gaseous output by about 20 per cent.
The cows, sheep and other animals being served the feed still burp and fart — but it's almost methane free. (Photo: Getty Images)
He wondered if there might be other seaweeds around the world that might be even more effective at reducing the methane.
"That's when I started the global search that brought me to Australia looking for that super seaweed, and it didn't take long before I found it,'' he said in an interview from Townsville, Australia, where he works for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
"In the laboratory it was a bit of a shocker when I first found it because I thought the instruments weren't working properly because I couldn't find methane at all. It was reducing methane below the detection limits of the instruments we were using. I had never seen that before,'' he said.
Agriculture is one of the big contributors to the global greenhouse gas inventory — anywhere from 15 to 25 per cent.
"Considering that agriculture is one of the big contributors to the global greenhouse gas inventory, it's pretty huge."
The cows, sheep and other animals being served the feed still burp and fart — but it's almost methane free. (Kinley said 90 per cent of the methane actually comes from the burps, not the flatulence.)
Right now, there's not enough of the particular seaweed readily available to make it commercially viable, but Kinley said he's trying to convince some companies to get involved.
"What we need to do is find companies that already grow seaweed that are willing to change their ways. Once we can show them that it is economically viable and environmentally responsible to do so, that shouldn't be a problem,'' he said.
Yukon sledders feeding seaweed to dogs
Most farmed seaweed is now used for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers. However, Kinley said growing seaweed for animal feed would become more attractive if a carbon value is attached to it.
Meanwhile Dorgan's company, North Atlantic Organics, is trying to keep up with demand for its products — shipping across Canada and the United States, and some overseas.
It's even being supplied to dog sledders in the Yukon, who feed it to their dogs, he said.