Algae is a fast-growing alternative protein that can be used to meet the needs of livestock
As one of the fastest growing plants on Earth, algae is available in phenomenal diversity and abundance, but its quantity and possibility are yet a match. In recent years, the concept of algae as a source of fuel and energy has returned, despite the drop in oil prices. Yet, it’s difficult for the economics of algae to compete with petroleum in terms of cost, so researchers are looking at the value of algae as a feedstock.
A series of algae feeding trials have focused on aquaculture and livestock—dairy, beef, hogs and chickens. The trials have shown algae serves as a good substitute because it contains protein, carbohydrates and important oils. Depending on the animals, between 10% to 25% of conventional meal can be substituted with algae.
Despite the window for conventional meal substitution, algae production is hindered by lack of scale, says Milton Sommerfeld, co-director, Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. One of the concepts researchers are working toward is the use of algae biomass for carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals.
“The Department of Energy and other agencies are looking at the potential of other algae co-products,” Sommerfeld says. “Can we develop cultivation and harvesting systems for those products and get them into a market-type situation? We want to know how algae biomass compares as a multiple product resource.”
Because algae cultivation has not reached a proper scale, the challenge centers on bringing production to a point where sufficient quantities of algae can move into the market.
“Right now, algae as a feed supplement is relatively new, and no one is making enough to truly figure out how much it will cost to produce by the ton,” says Tryon Wickersham, associate professor, Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University.
With no energy wasted on roots, leaves or stems, algae grows at an incredible rate, sometimes quadrupling biomass in a single day. The possibilities for algae as a feedstock supplement are tantalizing because the plants can be manipulated according to the needs of particular animals.
“We can take the algae organism and produce what we call ‘fit for purpose’ biomass,” Sommerfeld says. “You tell me you want higher protein content? We can cultivate and harvest in a way that can increase protein and reduce oil or carbohydrate content.”
Generally, for feed, algae is dried, made into pellets and added as a supplement. Wickersham uses a dry fine powder and mixes it with a finishing ration. As a protein supplement, it can be pelleted or cubed and combined with other feed ingredients.
“We’ve also pelleted the algae and crumpled it before consumption,” he says. “We can serve algae by itself as a protein supplement and the cattle eat it, but it takes a little while longer to consume than something like cottonseed meal.”
Algae can produce from two to 10 times more biomass per acre annually than corn or soybeans, Sommerfeld says. “At this moment, algae appears to be the best bet for the future. A tremendous amount of corn and soybeans are used to feed animals—and that is resource intensive for the end product. The reality is there is a need for a more efficient feedstock that provides the necessary proteins, carbohydrates and lipids.”
Part of the solution is taking algae to a cost-competitive level—a task that demands cultivation innovation.