As that renowned philosopher Kermit the Frog once said: “It’s not easy being green”. It’s even harder with Miss Piggy breathing down your neck, but for a real challenge, try greening the planet with genomics one cow burp at a time. A new Genome Alberta project is doing just that.
Armed with a catchy title – “Development and deployment of MBVs/gEPDs for feed efficiency and carcass traits that perform in commercial beef cattle” – and a top-notch research team, the project uses genomics to develop more accurate breeding values for key traits of commercial cattle.
“Our breeding values are how we measure genetic merit for a particular animal,” said project lead Dr. John Basarab, Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta and Senior Beef Research Scientist at Alberta Agriculture & Forestry. “We can do it from phenotypes and pedigrees, but more recently we’ve been using genomic technology to do that.”
While the main targets are carcass quality and feed efficiency, it’s the potential impact on the environment that makes this study so timely.
“The outcomes aim to better select for more productive and feed efficient cattle,” said Dr. Basarab. “Greater feed efficiency means an animal will generate [through its burps] less methane per kilogram of beef produced.”
The consequences of that are significant: a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental impact of cattle, while ensuring the sustainability of the industry and future food security.
Checking under the hood
The process seems straightforward and brimming with potential; but how do you measure something you can’t see like methane emission? That’s where things really get interesting.
“To gauge methane emission for each animal, we use a Greenfeed system, which is essentially a fume hood on wheels,” said Basarab.
The system combines a feeder with what Basarab calls a “breathalyzer for cows”. To a layman, it makes you think of a driver sobriety test, but if you find yourself with a cow behind the wheel, you’ve got bigger issues than his blood alcohol level.
In this case, the feeder is the bait that coaxes the cow’s head into the fume hood to consume pellets. The feed is metered so that enough pellets are released to engage the cow for three to five minutes.
“During that time, the animal is eructating [belching] CO2 and methane into this confined area which is drawn into a tube. A sample is then pulled out of the tube and sent to the bottom of the feeder where a computer and infrared detector give real time CO2 and methane readings.”
Don’t rattle the cattle
Not only is it a more efficient method of data collection, it’s much easier on the animals.
In the past, they might have placed an animal in a respiratory chamber, which, while precise, is a small closed off room that can upset the cow’s behavior. They would sample, collect the information, take it back to the lab and two weeks later they might have their results.
“The beauty of this system is it’s non-invasive and stress-free for the cows,” said Basarab. “It can operate in near normal pasture and feedlot situations and is real time computer-based.”
Better, faster, greener
A large part of this project’s appeal for Basarab and others is the rare opportunity for a win-win-win scenario.
“Consumers are demanding emission reduction, something we can achieve through the same genetic selection that improves feed and production efficiency and boosts producer profits. And now with the added focus on carbon levies and carbon offset credits in Alberta, this work is especially timely.”
Many years ago, the “experts” said we could either have greenbacks or a green world, but not both. Of course, they also said that Kermit and Miss Piggy would never break up; so what do they know?