Straus Family Creamery puts Sonoma County dairy cows on seaweed diet to test method to fight climate change

Sonoma County’s Straus Family Creamery is testing feed mixtures with a certain marine vegetable to see if it will effectively reduce bovine burps of a potent greenhouse gas.|

Straus Family Creamery is widely known for all things food, but red seaweed isn’t one of them — until now.

This summer, ecologist-at-heart Albert Straus, who is a pioneer in organic farming, signed up his 24 cows on his Petaluma farm to help determine if feeding them red seaweed would reduce their methane emissions, mostly from belching. He mixed the ocean plant into their feed, like humans would add green onions to their scrambled eggs,

And over a 50-day trial in which the cows were tested four times a day, methane releases dropped by 52%. In some circumstances, the experiment showed the methane was cut by as much as 90%. Straus, who produces an assortment of mass-produced dairy products, believes a second trial planned in January will produce more consistent results.

“We know we can do better than that,” he told the Business Journal, referencing the lower percentage of reduction.

So far in the first trial, the equivalent of five metric tons of harmful greenhouse gases, blamed in causing the planet to heat up, was cut.

As part of a state climate initiative, California’s 2030 mandate requires a reduction of methane by 40%. It has been determined that cow burps are responsible for 35% of total U.S. on-farm greenhouse gas emissions.

Being the climate activist he is, Straus wanted to do his part in helping to reach that state goal on his dairy farm.

During the 50-day period over July and August, the cows were curious about the “health food” at first. But most of them embraced the red seaweed in their diet after about a week. The cows are traditionally fed silage, alfalfa, tofu and other by products. The trial added 300 pounds of the seaweed in the mix.

The overall seaweed experiment is being managed by Blue Ocean Barns, a firm involved in providing environmentally friendly livestock food based.

The public benefit corporation is a startup that formed in 2019, and since then, the San Diego company has raised $6.5 million in venture capital, it reported.

Blue Ocean Barns CEO Joan Salwen said her firm established the trial with hopes of expanding the use of red seaweed as a viable option for dairy farmers. The company plans to encourage food buyers to subsidize the dairy farmers.

Red seaweed holds a natural cluster of compounds that sparks a chemical reaction in the first of four cow stomachs that “gets in the way of methane being formed,” Salwen told the Business Journal. “This amazing plant synthesizes in the ocean and stores natural components that, when dry and fed to cows, are digested.”

Salwen was pleased to see Straus dairy cows gobble up the seaweed in their food mix.

“There’s a seven- to eight-day adaptive period. Then, they’re happy as clams,” she said.

Straus and Blue Ocean Barns have teamed up with marine biologist Jennifer Smith of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, which has collected specimens to grow the plant in a laboratory. Blue Ocean Barns is funding the research.

“We knew little about harvesting seaweed,” Smith told the Business Journal.

“There’s never been a way for us to mitigate methane in the dairy industry before,” Smith said, adding the seaweed also holds properties scientists are using for new drug discoveries.

Red seaweed lives off the Pacific Coast of California from the Channel Islands to Baja.

“The ultimate challenge is there’s never enough of it in nature to harvest it for cows to make a dent (with climate activism efforts). We’re trying to grow it in a way to make it commercially viable,” she said. “But we’ve barely scratched the surface on this species.”

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