Algae ‘fodder ponds’ example of MLA’s ‘blue sky’ research

Jon Condon, 02/09/2012


Pilot project algae pondOne day in the not too distant future, cattle properties could manufacture their own source of protein to supplement weaners and other target animals using ponds to grow algae as a stockfeed.

This is just one of a number of examples of ‘blue sky’ research Meat and Livestock Australia showcased in a recent commentary.

Others included crush-side cameras with a capacity to measure animal body condition scores, and processing technologies that extend the shelf-life of beef products.

MLA’s strategic science manager, Dr Terry Longhurst, said Australia’s red meat industry has an innovative future thanks to its long-term and balanced investment in R&D to build productivity and profitability.

He said MLA engaged with producers and processors when identifying the ‘big challenges’ to be overcome to continue to move the industry forward.

This engagement underpins the development of MLA’s five-year research strategies for beef, animal welfare, animal health and biosecurity.

Currently MLA invests about $3.6 million annually in what can be described as ‘strategic’ science. The early development of Meat Standards Australia is an example of work that fell into this category.

Strategic science projects were prioritised by their potential benefit to industry – be it economic, environmental, market access or other, Dr Longhurst said.

Although ‘blue sky’ projects offered potential to deliver huge benefits to industry, they were not without technical or commercial risk.

“As a result, MLA applies a rigorous evaluation and only invests in high risk projects if there is a high net benefit,” Dr Longhurst said.

The algae pondage work is a good example of such work.

The University of Queensland and James Cook University are investigating how to develop and harvest on-farm algal ponds as a source of high-value protein and energy supplements. The work is based on the premise that nutritional limitations of northern Australia’s pastures can be partly overcome by critically-timed additional protein. Weaning is a prime example. The high-protein algae would provide a locally produced, low-cost source of protein.

UQ nutritionist Dr Stu McLennan touched on the algal ponds concept during an address at a northern beef research conference some time back.

He said a 1ha pilot-scale algal pond had been established at James Cook University in Townsville, for the purposes of looking at growth responses to feeding algae to cattle.

“It actually measures up quite well in terms of feed value against widely-used feed commodities like cotton seed meal or copra meal,” Dr McLennan said.

“At first cattle wouldn’t go near it, but once they got used to algae as a feed source, they would gallop over whenever there was a feed delivery happening,” he said.

There were literally hundreds of different algae species, each with different protein and lipid (energy) configurations. The species fed in early trials was called spirulina, also used as a human dietary supplement. Suitable algae will grow in salty, as well as fresh water.

At the moment cost of production was the main issue, Dr McLennan said.

Other interest was focussing on trial projects growing algae for biofuel production. While bio-fuel producers were interested only in the lipid (fatty acid) component of the algae to produce a bio-diesel, the beef industry could get access to the protein component, as a by-product, he said.

At some future time, however, large algae-producing ponds on-farm could be a possibility.

Dr McLennan showed a slide that suggested it might be possible to produce 250kg of edible algae per hectare of pond, on a dry matter basis. Given that result, a 2.5ha pond could potentially provide the daily nutrient equivalent to a typical protein meal requirement needed to feed 1000 weaners on a large northern grazing enterprise. That forecast was based on 0.5pc of bodyweight fed per day, as a replacement for cotton seed meal, copra meal or equivalent.

“Another point is that protein is going to be a limiting factor in future,” Dr McLennan said.

“As soon as a viable source becomes available, the price starts to go up, until it starts to become prohibitive for cattle production use. And mono-gastrics tend to use a lot more meals in rations these days, adding to competition. The price of any new protein source quickly becomes it biological value, relative to other protein sources,” he said.

“So perhaps one day, growing algae on-farm using ponds, might be part of the solution.”

Some of the other examples of ‘blue sky’ research supported by MLA include:              


High pressure processing (HPP)

MLA is investigating in HPP’s potential for red meat, following its success in creating fresh tasting long-life fruit juices. Hydraulic pressure (equivalent to 200 elephants standing on a CD) is applied to products immersed in a liquid medium. This inactivates food-borne pathogens while maintaining integrity and freshness without preservatives. MLA is also conducting strategic research with CSIRO to see how HPP could tenderise meat with high connective tissue.

Read Beef Central’s earlier report on the possibilities in HPP here


Very fast chilling (VFC), Very Fast Freezing (VFF)

VFC reduces carcase temperature quickly to limit growth of microorganisms for longer shelf-life and reduced preservatives. Chilling a carcase too quickly is known to cause cold shortening (toughening) of meat, but MLA’s strategic research has found if chilled rapidly enough, cold-shortening can be avoided and eating quality is maintained.

Read Beef Central’s earlier report on examples of commercial adoption of Very Fast Freezing here.


Livestock Data Link

It’s long been a complaint of livestock producers that feedback on the carcase performance of their animals is difficult to obtain. A web-based tool is being developed to enhance the exchange and utilisation of carcase performance feedback, linked to the NLIS database. Processors can automatically enter performance data on individual carcases. This is complemented by a ‘Solutions to Feedback’ library, providing producers with tools to address specific issues to boost market compliance. Producers can benchmark their herd/flock at a regional, state and national level, and performance data will help set priorities for industry research. The pilot program is underway in several processing plants with a broader roll-out planned pending evaluation of the pilots.


3D image analysis

By late 2013, the humble cattle crush could be a one-stop cattle information centre. P8 fat, rib fat, frame score and muscle score established by 3D images taken as the animal moves through the race or crush should be available to the operator at a touch of a button. Developed by the NSW Department of Primary Industries and University of Technology Sydney, the technology will potentially feed into prediction tools such as the BeefSpecs calculator, which matches young cattle to markets.


Skeletal growth compensatory gain

Northern cattle typically alternate weight loss in the dry season with weight gain in the subsequent wet season. Animals with higher levels of dry season weight loss tend to compensate by growing faster the following wet season than animals with lower levels of dry-season weight loss. This compensatory growth can erode benefits of dry season supplementation. MLA and the UQ are conducting strategic research into interactions of dry season liveweight gain/loss, skeletal growth/elongation, and compensatory growth. This may lead to developing more cost-effective supplementation regimes and management interventions to drive profitability through improved growth rates.


Reducing livestock emissions

MLA is coordinating a $20 million Australian Government research program over the next three years in partnership with nine research agencies, building on knowledge developed from the Reducing Emissions from Livestock Research Program which concludes this year. Research will be conducted into feed additives, nutrition, rumen processes, genetics, modelling and management practices to identify ways to reduce livestock methane emissions while also increasing farm productivity.




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