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BURLINGTON, Vt. - UVM News reports:  A multi-institutional research team led by UVM’s Sabrina Greenwood has been awarded $2.9 million to explore the potential animal health, environmental and economic benefits of seaweed as a feed alternative for organic dairy cows.

The grant is one of USDA’s newly funded Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative projects to help improve yields, milk quality and profitability for organic farmers and producers.

Instability of organic milk prices over the past several years has put a strain on the organic dairy community. As farmers struggle to maintain consistent financial viability, they are also faced with the growing impacts of climate change and mounting pressure to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.

Seaweed is a nutritious alternative to traditional feed supplements made with corn and soybean and has the potential to reduce cows’ methane emissions. Seaweed can also be sustainably grown and may improve soil health through altered manure profiles from the cows eating the seaweed.

“Teaming up with the aquaculture industry may be a perfect pairing to address organic farm sustainability and production efficiency in organic dairy,” said Greenwood, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences and the project director.

“We are looking to holistically characterize the opportunities for organic seaweed to provide not only a more sustainable feed option, but one that could boost milk productivity and animal health without compromising natural resources.”

While the majority of organic-fed cows’ diets come from pasture or conserved forages such as silage and hay, feed supplements are often required to provide adequate protein and energy to support the animals through winter months. Different seaweed species have drastically different nutritional values and profiles, which have not been fully explored. Initial research has shown seaweed can provide animal health benefits, including lower incidence of certain ailments, greater reproductive success, and higher milk quality.

Kelp meal, a supplement made from a common brown seaweed, has become popular among organic farmers, but other species of seaweed and processing methods could offer greater benefits to cow health, milk productivity and the environment.

Over the next four years, the team, which includes researchers from UVM, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, the University of New Hampshire and Syracuse University, as well as collaborators across the Northeast, will explore the nutrient profile of various seaweed species and processing methods, how those nutrients impact animal health and milk quality, and how they cycle back through the pasture soil via urine and manure.

“One of the unique aspects of this project is our focus on how seaweed supplements might affect the flow of nutrients from manure to soils and then back to the forages that cows eat,” noted Alix Contosta, research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Cultivating seaweed for feed also has the potential to expand the aquaculture industry in the Northeast, home to 40% of the nation’s organic dairies, thereby improving supply chain efficiencies and strengthening local economies.

“Maine has a nascent organic seaweed industry that is diversifying the species farmers cultivate and always looking for new market opportunities. Organic dairy may represent the early adopter sector for innovative seaweed-based feed additives that could be applicable to other cattle industries,” said Nichole Price, senior research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

The project also includes an important outreach element interviewing farmers, producers and industry partners to better understand the market opportunity for seaweed as well as educational and demonstration opportunities to help further adoption of seaweed as a more sustainable feed option.

“What I’m especially excited about is this systems approach, something I think is a particular strength of our university and regional partnerships,” said David Conner, professor in the UVM Department of Community Development and Applied Economics who will oversee the supply chain aspect of the project. “The extent to which we can improve linkages among local businesses, the better it is for the local economy and the more resilient food systems we can build. This work could help us relocalize dairy supply chains to improve dairy viability in Vermont and the region.”