Albert Straus is proving cows don’t have to be the enemy of the environment or the food chain.
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Albert Straus stands in front of his electric feed truck on the Straus Dairy Farm. The feed truck’s motor is charged from electrical power generated from methane gas produced by the cows’ own manure. (Straus Family Creamery Photo)

His Straus Family Creamery’s game-changing decision to fight climate change by adding seaweed to his cows’ feed has earned the farm a Planet Award from the natural foods trade group, Naturally North Bay.

“The decision for Straus was unanimous,” Carolyn Stark, executive director of the Kenwood-based nonprofit, said of the April 7 award. “The significant work they have done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is groundbreaking.”

The dairy farm and creamery has done many things in its efforts to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2022, but Naturally North Bay highlighted its use of red seaweed.

Seaweed and cows

About four years ago, Straus read about red seaweed being fed to cattle in Australia and Canada in the hopes of reducing their release of methane gas, which is a contributor to climate change.

Last summer, the dairy began to test the idea on its Marin County farm near the tiny town of Marshall.

A portion of Straus’ herd was given one-quarter pound of red seaweed mixed in with their normal diet of 45 pounds of feed.

Peer-reviewed findings, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, showed the addition of this particular seaweed in the animal’s diet reduced methane emissions by more than 50%.

Cows emit methane mostly through belching.

“(This burping) contributes about 2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year to the atmosphere, or more than 4% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally,” according to Blue Ocean Barns, a partner in the test with the University of California, Davis.

The effects of methane on the climate are worse than those of carbon dioxide.The idea that a seaweed-enriched diet would reduce those emissions was worth testing.

“Because methane is both a powerful greenhouse gas and short-lived compared to carbon dioxide, achieving significant reductions would have a rapid and significant effect on atmospheric warming potential,” the Environmental Protection Agency stated.

Initially, the seaweed used in the local study was leftover matter that had been harvested in the Azores. Now it is being grown in tanks in San Diego and Hawaii. Blue Ocean Farms is growing the product and will continue supplying Strauss with this unique feed for his girls.

Not harming the ocean was critical to Straus, who said he is thrilled the food source is now being grown outside its natural environment.

While it costs a bit more than traditional feed, he said the increase in price is worth it. Plus, he predicted the price would eventually come down as more farmers turn to red seaweed, which in turn will balance the economies of scale.

And, while there were dramatic reductions in their cows’ methane emissions, the farm’s choice to continue to feed the cows seaweed was solidified by a taste test.

“There was no difference in the flavor of the milk or nutrition or anything else,” Straus said.

Going forward

Straus doesn’t want to be alone in his use of red seaweed at his dairy farm. He hopes recognition from organizations like Naturally North Bay will help spread the word of the work he and his company are doing.

“I feel like providing organic dairy products is vital to our food supply and our environment,” Straus said. He underlined how the pandemic provided the need for locally sourced foods, what with the supply chain breaking down and restaurants closed.

The 12 dairy farms he works with that supply product to the creamery are on target to be carbon neutral by the end of the decade.

Straus expects that between the seaweed and the methane digester that he will have reduced nearly 90% percent of the methane his cows off-put. The digester decomposes the manure.

“This award helps us to get this message out about farming and our food system, and how we can change our farming food system to make it environmentally sustainable and provide local food.”

As one generation of dairy farmers see retirement on the horizon, who are the next generation farmers taking over the responsibility of feeding the world?

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