Florida student turns weeds into potentially methane-reducing livestock feed

March 7, 2023

Noxious weeds are not the forages cattle producers want to grow in their pastures. In Florida, two major weeds of concern are pigweed and tropical soda apple. These invasive weeds take over valuable grazing land and, in some situations, poison livestock.

Pigweed is considered potentially toxic to cattle, and, while cows will eat the mature fruit of the tropical soda apple (thus spreading its seeds), cattle avoid the prickly shrub’s foliage.

Still, where most see a problem, Wilmer Cuervo sees possibility. Previous research studies have found that pigweed and tropical soda apple leaves, fruits and seeds contain molecules that reduce, or even inhibit, the amount of methane produced by cattle.

Could invasive weeds be turned into a supplement for cattle that improves digestion and reduces greenhouse gas emissions? Cuervo, a Ph.D. student graduate research assistant at the University of Florida, wants to find out. He is isolating the methane-reducing molecules from pigweed and tropical soda apple, adding those extracts to cattle feed, and evaluating how they interact in the rumen environment of cows.

“A lot of people see weeds as something to get rid of,” Cuervo told the VoLo Foundation last month. “But they can have a richness beyond that.” At the time, he was evaluating an additive extracted from fruit peels.

Cuervo’s project, “Evaluation of anti-methanogenic potential of extracts from Pigweed and Tropical soda apple in North Florida,” has earned him the VoLo Foundation’s 2023 VISTA Award, which stands for Vision, Innovation, Sustainability, Technology and Action in climate solutions. Cuervo presented his research during the 2023 Climate Correction Conference last Friday in Orlando, Florida. The VISTA award recognizes full-time graduate students at a U.S.-based university or college who are actively working on climate solutions projects that will benefit Florida. Florida ranks 10th in the nation for beef cow production, with 15,000 beef operations that cover about 30% of the state.

Solutions from the Land celebrates Cuervo’s innovative, circular approach to finding ways to create win-win solutions for agriculture and climate change mitigation efforts.

Cow-calf operations, which are primarily pasture-based, offer the ability to clean up the air through carbon sequestration on grasslands. However, a single cow also emits an estimated 154 to 264 pounds of methane each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If successful, Cuervo’s solution would not just open opportunities for farmers and ranchers to reduce methane production in beef cattle. The solution could create value from an otherwise undesirable reality in most pastures: weeds. Perhaps someday a cow-calf operator could find a market for the weeds in their pastures, rather than a need to fight them with expensive herbicides.

While such thoughts are for the far future, now is the time for research to consider which big ideas are worth continuing to pursue. And the idea of turning waste (weeds) into value (a feed additive that potentially reduces methane production) is exactly the kind of circular economy thinking that should be prioritized in research.

Congratulations to Wilmer Cuervo and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences for this outstanding research project, and thank you to the VoLo Foundation for recognizing the need for studies that will support farmers and ranchers in producing nutritious food—including beef—while improving the environment.

Learn More

Hear Wilmer Cuervo share his research idea and why it is important for both beef producers and society in this video from the VoLo Foundation. Learn about the Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Work Group to find other Florida partners identifying and implementing climate smart agriculture solutions and ecosystem services that benefit the public, producers and the planet.

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