Writer: Aaron Hoover
Source: Ed Lincoln, (352) 392-7657
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- It's touted for boosting your energy and helping your immune system.
But the real value of the faddish nutritional supplement known as blue-green algae may be as a cheap and nutritious food for hogs -- one that can be grown in part with an ingredient that commercial swine operations have long struggled to get rid of: manure.
Ed Lincoln, a UF agricultural and biological engineering professor, says a variety of blue-green algae called spirulina is an easily digestible, nutrient-rich food that could largely replace soybeans in hog feed. Farmers in many areas of the world could grow the algae with the help of hog manure, making it not only cheaper than soybeans but also providing an ecologically friendly solution to the growing problem of hog farm pollution, he said.
"You don't have to don't have to use as much land as they use in farming soybeans, you don't have to cultivate it and it could help prevent pollution from runoff," he said.
Spirulina and other blue-green algae often are sold in health food stores in dried, powdered or capsule form. Proponents say the algae have numerous benefits for people, including easing depression, boosting energy, even slowing aging.
"Ancient cultures were aware of spirulina's exceptional life-generating energy and held its remarkable energizing and rejuvenating properties in high esteem," says one commercial Web site for spirulina. "The Aztecs considered it a ‘Sacred Power Plant.'"
Lincoln downplays such claims, saying spirulina may be nutritious but "is not magic." However, he says, more than a decade's worth of his research -- as well as recent use of the algae in commercial pig farming operations -- shows it has unique potential for hog feed.
A thick, greenish soup covers two 105-by-20-foot lagoons at Lincoln's outdoor research facility in Gainesville. Lincoln says the spirulina in the lagoons thrives on a diet of sunlight, water, sodium bicarbonate and hog waste collected from UF's experimental swine facility nearby. The sodium bicarbonate, a cheap and readily available chemical, provides a source of carbon for the growing algae, he says.
Lincoln flips a switch and two rotating mechanical blades begin pushing the mixture in a slow clockwise direction around the lagoons. He places a metal screen across one section of the lagoon, then uses a net to harvest the algae it collects. He then spreads the algae across another screen, where it begins drying in the sun. Although bulky when wet, the algae dries into extremely thin, turquoise-colored flakes after several days.
In experiments using both lagoons, Lincoln said he has collected and dried as much as 100 pounds of algae per day. For each acre of lagoons, he said, he could collect 20 tons of algae per year, five times the 4 tons of soybeans harvestable from an acre of soybeans each year. "It's potentially cheaper and better," he said.
Lincoln, who said he has published more than 50 papers on his research, said growing algae is impractical for farmers in temperate climates because it cannot live in cold temperatures. But it is ideal for farmers in Southern and tropical areas, including many poor farmers in Third-World countries who may have difficulty paying for soybeans.
Lincoln said he has already worked as a consultant for Mexican company now using algae for feed at a large commercial swine operation in the Yucatan, and he hopes more operations try the technique in the near future.
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