Can kelp create healthier cows and a healthier planet?

June 26, 2023

Kelp as a feed additive for cows isn’t exactly new, but it is getting some new attention for its potential to help fight climate change.

“There’s some early work out there that shows some promising results, but I think there’s a lot of people, myself included, working with the different feed supplements to help try to reduce methane emissions from cows,” said Brad Heins, a dairy researcher and professor at West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minnesota.

The U.S. dairy industry has set a goal to be climate neutral by 2050 and “belching cows” have been pointed to as a climate change contributor.

Cows, with their multi-chamber digestive system, are a “big fermentation vat,” Heins said. “They belch it out; 95% of the methane produced by a cow comes out of their mouth.”

In June, Heins started on a research project to measure the methane emissions from the grazing dairy herd at the Morris research center, following up on research trials in other parts of the country. There will be a control group without kelp additives and another group given a kelp ration.

“Some of the early research that has come out shows maybe a 20% to 30% reduction in methane emissions from cows by feeding these seaweed supplements. It's pretty promising. If you can get submissions reduced by that amount, that’s pretty significant, actually,” Heins said.

Heins said he hopes to have some early results of the study this fall and the study may continue beyond that.

Cow health

Heins has done research on kelp additives before, but that research focused on the health of the cow, not the planet.

Ken and Dori Larson, along with their two adult children, operate an organic dairy farm near Ottertail, Minnesota. Feeding kelp as an additive is common on organic dairies.

“The reason we use kelp is we cannot use antibiotics, so we have to have high-level immune systems in the cows, and kelp does that,” Ken Larson said.

The Larsons’ Silver Dust Farm is all family run. They milk 60 cows with daughter Ellen Dilly overseeing the dairy operations. Son Todd Larson handles the crop farming, about 500 acres.

A new barn, with a robotic milker, went up about two years ago, cutting down on the physical labor needed to manage the herd.

“We started milking in ‘81 as a conventional dairy, and we switched to organic in ‘06,” Ken Larson said, with organic dairies getting a premium price on their milk. But they had already been using a kelp additive even while operating as a conventional dairy.

“Just about all your organic dairy farmers feed kelp,” Larson said. “First thing we noticed with it, it helped heifers calve; there’s more embryonic fluid, so the calf was born easier."

Silver Dust Farm is part of the Organic Valley cooperative, which also processes the milk that comes from the Morris dairy herd.

While starting out rationing about 2 ounces a day, they now “free choice it,” with cows having access to a tub of granular kelp whenever they feel the need.

“If they’re under stress, they will eat a fair amount of kelp, so you can use it as a gauge of how comfortable they are,” Larson said.

Some of those things that might cause stress are heat and stray voltage from power lines.

Larson said kelp doesn’t replace anything in the diet of the cows and it is expensive, but worth the cost.

Larson said he thinks the benefits of kelp also would help beef cows.

“I would use it on the dry cows, a couple months before the cows calve, just because of the benefits of calving,” Larson said. “Then you’re going to get that immune system built up in the calf, too. There’s definitely benefits there.”

Not just for cows

Kelp is a subgroup of seaweed, which is algae. The product that the Larsons use comes from Iceland, but it is sourced in other areas.

Heins said commercial kelp farms also are getting started.

Makes of kelp additives promote it for many species of livestock.

Kelp is high in minerals and there are even kelp nutrition supplements for people, which Ken Larson uses.

“For a wide spectrum supplement, I believe it's well worth it,” Larson said.

Technology advancements

The interest in kelp and research being conducted by Heins and others is made possible by technology developed in recent years that allows for accurate measurement of methane emissions from livestock.

“Once people started to measure the methane emissions from cows, while they were on these seaweed supplements, it was like ‘oh, maybe there’s something here that shows a reduction in methane emissions,'” Heins said.

Heins is conducting his research with the help of a GreenFeed methane measuring device made by C-Lock, a technology company based in Rapid City, South Dakota.

C-Lock’s GreenFeed system also will be used at South Dakota State University as part of its Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The research in Morris is being funded by a grant from the Minnesota Rapid Agricultural Response Fund , created by the Minnesota Legislature.

Ken Larson does have one concern about the kelp research. If it proves to be effective on reducing methane, he fears small organic dairies like his may get priced out of the market.

“Then the big herds will be using more of it … then the small farmer’s going to be paying more.”