However, instead of searching on land, they may want to consider turning to the sea.

Algae, a buzzword in the biofuel industry five years ago, are a new feed alternative in the animal feed industry.

One of nature’s most important and unique organisms, algae contribute to the air we breathe, producing nearly 50 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere and directly supporting the ocean life, therefore playing a major role in global productivity.

There are an estimated 800,000 species of algae that range from single-celled micro-organisms to multi-celled organisms such as the 200-foot-long giant kelp.

Algae produce carbohydrates, oils, protein, vitamins, pigments and organic materials. Since they are aquatic, algae grow much faster than land plants as they do not have to expend energy growing roots and support structures like trunks, leaves and stems.


Without the need for support, algae can triple or quadruple their biomass every day. While land plants only grow in one direction, algae can grow in all directions.

This rapid growth means that one acre of algae can produce the same amount of protein in a year as 21 acres of soybeans or 49 acres of corn.

Most commercial production of microalgae is done autotrophically in open outdoor circulating raceways or ponds.

Under autotrophic growing conditions, microalgae use light energy to fix carbon dioxide, their carbon source, into hydrocarbons with oxygen discharged as a waste product.

However, poor light diffusion; microbial, chemical and physical contamination; downstream processing and the growth of zooplankton and other species are all drawbacks of an open system.

The other commercial production method in growing algae is the heterotrophic system. Heterotrophic species get their energy from organic carbon compounds in much the same way as yeast, bacteria and animals.

By eliminating light from the production process, any fermenter (such as those used for production of medicines, beverages and food additives) can be used for heterotrophic algal growth.

Reaching 100,000 liters in size, these fermenters can generate large volumes of highly productive cultures, making them less expensive than the autotrophic system.

One of the main differences between autotrophic and heterotrophic systems is the added nutritional benefits from heterotrophic algae.

The heterotrophic method maintains a closed, controlled system that provides a more consistent, traceable and pure algal product that is more beneficial for the feed industry.

For example, by manipulating the physical and chemical properties of the cultural medium, several species of microalgae can overproduce and accumulate higher levels of specific fatty acids.

Researchers in 2006 demonstrated that C. protothecoides had a lipid content as high as 55 percent, approximately four times greater than when grown autotrophically.

In another study in 1994, researchers showed that omega-3 fatty acid productivity was two to three times higher when produced in heterotrophic rather than autotrophic conditions.

Microalgae that contain large quantities of high-quality eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are now being commercialized as sustainable alternative sources to fish oil.

By providing a clean and consistent source of DHA, heterotrophic microalgae offer more nutrition components to a diet than the autotrophic method.

These microalgae are also able to offer more nutritional benefits for consumers. Besides seeing an increase in immunity, a decrease in mortality and increased litter size in their herds, producers who utilize feeds with this type of algae will also be able to further brand their products as DHA-enriched functional foods for consumers.

In a twofold contribution, producers can see the benefits of feeding algae to the animals as well as marketing the enriched product to consumers.

This means improving return while creating a healthier population of both humans and animals all at the same time.

Beside the nutritional improvement that microalgae can bring to feeds and food, it is the only biomass material that allows production with daily harvest year-round.

This could bring more security to an ever-changing feed market and provide some options for cattle producers, especially when feed sources are hard to come by.  end mark

Becky Timmons is the Global Director of Applications Research and Quality Assurance for Alltech.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.


Algae research in Alltech’s development lab mimics the production process in their algae processing facility in Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Alltech.