13 April 2023 |

Making the cow more efficient


I’ve been covering climate tech for three years straight. One quote in particular still stands out to me from earlier in my learning journey. Eben Bayer, the CEO of Ecovative, and I were talking about AI (in 2020, pre-ChatGPT). Eben gently reminded me that there are incredible ‘technologies’ all around us in the natural world that are just as mind-bending as supercomputers.

Specifically, he said, “The chicken is also a very advanced technology.”

I return to this point every few months because I need the reminder. It’s easy to get lost in conversations about the latest and greatest in accelerationist tech. Nuclear fusion! Engineered carbon removal! Electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft!

Against that backdrop, we often overlook the forest, the fungal networks underneath it, and the chicken and the cow. Today, let’s talk about the cow. 

(As an aside, cows are, of course, much more than a ‘technology’. Insofar as we’ll discuss things like the ‘efficiency’ of cows today, and especially on a day when a fire tragically killed some 18,000 of these beautiful sentient beings in Texas., felt like I should put this note upfront.)

Concentric circles in cow conversations

Even though it might not be the talk of your Twitter feed, many people recognize the cow as advanced technology. There’s an entire academic and agricultural industry keenly focused on improving the ‘efficiency’ of the cow. 

Take the single-largest cost for livestock farmers in the U.S. – feed. Farmers think about concepts like feed-conversion efficiency, i.e., how much of what they’re feeding livestock is converted into calories. Given the size of feed as a line item, improvements on the magnitude of 1-2% or even basis points matter in feed-conversion efficiency. Any technical advancement that can help cows metabolize or harness more energy from feed is valuable.

What do you see? Milk cows eating feed, or a huge lever to mitigate climate change? (photo via Shutterstock)

Cows are also at the center of a significant climate story. 

It’s not cows’ fault. They don’t choose to make methane, just like they didn’t choose to become mankind’s go-to livestock (there are 1B+ cows in the world). Their methane production is more of a bug than a helpful feature, and not just because methane accelerates global warming. While methanogens in cow’s rumen (their first stomach) help them digest grasses, the methane they produce is wasteful. Methane is packed with energy (which is why we burn so much of it for power generation). So when cows convert calories to methane and burp it out, those are ‘lost’ calories.

The fortuitous thing about these two conversations – the cow-climate challenge and feed-conversion efficiency conversation – is that they’re concentric circles; there’s overlap at the center. According to Alex Brown, the co-founder and CEO of Alga Biosciences, ~12% of the calories farmers feed cows escape as methane. If you could help cows waste less energy in the form of methane, you could save farmers money on feed while decelerating global warming.

100% methane emissions reductions?

Owning the intersection of cutting methane and upping food-conversion efficiency is Alga Biosciences’ mission. Here’s Alex again:

We’re making cows more efficient. Methane isn’t beneficial to the animal. It’s a symptom of inefficiency. We see it as a hidden cost for cows and farmers.

Alga Biosciences announced a $4M seed round this week, led by Collaborative Fund with participation from Y Combinator, Day One Ventures, Cool Climate Collective, and others. The company also received a grant from USDA Climate Smart Commodities.

Alga Biosciences’ throwing its hat in an increasingly crowded ring. There are companies we’ve covered previously, like Mootral, that take ‘basic’ ingredients (e.g., garlic and citrus) to create methane-reducing feed additives for cows. Many companies work with seaweed and kelp ingredients to produce other methane-reducing feed additives. And there are companies further afield, like ArkeaBio, which is developing a vaccine for this problem, and Zelp, which makes a sort of mask for cows that purportedly neutralizes methane emissions when cows burp into it.

Probably missed a few firms, but here’s a simple market map based on the key ingredient or technology driving each firms’ methane emissions reduction approach. Note where it’s crowded!

Most of these firms focus on the climate side of the cow conversation. By adding the efficiency and feed-conversion perspective to the mix, Alga Biosciences is already doing something unique. There are other firms that have marketed methane-reducing products at farmers and focused on efficiency, but they’ve focused on increased milk production yields and their products don’t deliver nearly as dramatic methane reduction potential.

Agla Biosciences’ manufacturing approach is also unique. Most methane feed-additive firms work with Asparagopsis taxiformis, a red macroalgae. Based on significant research over the past 5-10 years, this is a good solution to ruminant methane emissions. But the seaweed isn’t grown at scale. And scale is the key lever here; whatever solutions’ win’ at reducing methane emissions from cows in trials need to scale to millions if not billions of cows.

Alga Biosciences’ tech involves modifying other macroalgaes grown at greater scale to take on the same anti-methanogenic properties that Asparagopsis taxiformis offers. They developed IP in-house to modify bioactives in macroalgaes, targeting the desired biochemical profile as well as other factors like stability and scalability. Alga Biosciences’ other co-founders are the real heroes here: Caroline McKeon and Daria Balatsky were previously working on PHDs in chemistry and physics.

Without getting too far into the synthetic biology weeds, Alga Biosciences’ feed additive delivered great results on methane reduction in early tests. A study they conducted at the University of Kentucky – in which cows spend time with their head inside giant box-like machines – detected no discernible methane emissions from the cows that received Alga Biosciences’ feed additive. The study ran for over a month per cow group and also saw no ‘microbiome bounce back,’ a common phenomenon where methanogens adjust to new conditions and produce methane again after a lull.

As far as I know, this is the first case of a study claiming 100% or close to 100% methane emissions reductions from a feed-additive product. With that success rate, there’s big potential for Alga Biosciences’ solution if they can get into countless cows.

That’s a big if. On the heels of the seed fundraise, Alex and Alga Biosciences’ big priority is to get its solution both into more labs for more testing and out of the lab into commercial settings so they can test their impact on the scale of thousands of cows per day.

Commercializing the cow upgrade

How do you move from dozens of cows in the lab to thousands of cows in the field? And how do you continue measuring whether you’re curbing methane emissions for the in-field work? On the manufacturing front, Alga Biosciences recently produced its first run of tens of thousands of tons of product. At roughly 70 grams per cow per day, that’s enough to cover thousands of cows for a month. 

Ideally, the sales component of the scale question can be satisfied in the short term by agricultural firms being willing to give the product a shot in advance of regulation and consumer pressure. 

Longer-term, Alex sees major agricultural firms moving to keep more of their hard-earned emissions reductions inside their supply chains rather than selling them elsewhere. Coming full circle, this means the feed-conversion efficiency conversation becomes the critical selling point again, rather than carbon credits, which most other ruminant methane-reduction firms focus on.

Continuing to measure success as the product scales could be just as hard as getting into millions of cows. ‘MRV‘ is a hot topic across carbon removal for good reason; it won’t be an easy nut to crack, especially at scale, in settings like pastures and feedlots, either. Alga Biosciences needs to generate reliable scientific data even as they move into much bigger commercial pilots. 

Reliable measurement and monitoring aren’t just important for Alga Biosciences; they’re essential for companies to hit disclosure requirements and maintain credibility. So far, most of Alga Biosciences’ work on this front involves partnerships to repurpose existing hardware from feedlot settings. I’ll be curious to see what they come up with; you can’t put thousands of cows into headboxes. Whatever the solution is, it needs to be easy for farmers and cows alike.

The net-net

Cutting methane emissions in cows is the single highest leverage solution I’ve identified covering climate tech so far. If you can cut ruminant methane emissions significantly via a jab or feed additive, and you get the solution into millions of cows, you could measurably decelerate global warming.

As we noted earlier, several companies are getting shots on goal here. Which is good! Differentiating factors will be the efficacy of the various solutions, their cost, and ability to scale. If a vaccine reduces emissions by 99% in one shot, that could be an all-out winner. What’s more likely is that different solutions lend themselves better to different geos, breeds, and regulatory environments.

The biggest need will be creativity around what gets workable solutions into the most cows. Some of this might come from the private sector. But maybe it should also look like more coordinated historical efforts, like the worldwide roll-out of Polio vaccines. Feed for thought!