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Scientists Hit Bulls-Eye in Targeting Cow Methane Emissions

Editor's note - An article from Popular Science earlier this month suggested that measurements of on-farm methane emissions were not accurate because no one is standing in a pasture measuring how much gas comes from an individual cow. True, no one is standing in the pasture but there are measurements taking place. We asked our regular contributor Geoff Geddes to fill in some of the details PopSci missed. You might also want to check out this story in Western Producer about collecting and measuring methane emissions)

The topic of reducing methane emissions from cow burps might be rife with puns, but scientists are deadly serious about the use of cutting edge technology to address the problem. And given the ability of researchers to precisely measure those emissions and devise targeted solutions, any critique of their accuracy really misses the mark.

Ironically, the claim that research to reduce emissions is flawed because it’s based on imprecise data is, in itself, flawed. In fact, projects like the Canadian-based Efficient Dairy Genome Project – which also aims to enhance feed efficiency - are making great strides in lowering methane created by cattle burping and the greenhouse gases produced as a result. It all starts where most successful research begins: rigorous data collection.

In search of greener pastures

As part of the Canadian project, researchers employ a device known as the GreenFeed system to measure greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from dairy cows. It’s an automated ‘bait’ station where a cow puts its head in and pellets drop into a feeding trough. As the animal feeds on the pellets, the machine measures emission of methane and carbon dioxide from the breath of the cow.

For every 20 seconds that the cow keeps his head in the machine, another pellet is released. This gives them proper motivation to remain in place and allows scientists a full five minutes to gather data each time the system is deployed. Because the set-up is completely unobtrusive for the cow, animal welfare is safeguarded throughout the process.

Results that add up

To maximize the efficiency and accuracy of the sampling, researchers measure each cow at two different times each day for 12 days, thereby gleaning data for a full 24 hour cycle. When you multiply 5 minutes of measurement twice a day times 12 days, and do that for 100 cows per year, even the math-challenged would agree it generates a heap of data.

But the number crunching doesn’t end there. Because projects such as this involve multiple partners from around the globe, it’s possible to build huge databases to further inform the research and benefit from existing data like that from milk recording programs for 700,000 cows in Canada last year.

Less is more

From all of this information, researchers can then enhance the ability of genetic selection to produce cows that emit less methane. Selecting for reduced methane emissions will decrease the environmental footprint of the dairy industry. This comes at a time when there is increased awareness of the role of agriculture in greenhouse gas emissions, of which methane is a significant contributor.

Apart from cutting feed costs by $108 per cow per year, preliminary estimates show that breeding animals with increased feed efficiency and reduced methane emissions can lower those emissions by an impressive 11-26%.

In addition, animals that are fed efficiently produce less manure, thereby further reducing the environmental impact. And when fewer resources are needed overall, such as lower grain requirements to feed cattle, the entire industry becomes greener.

The potential is staggering, but only because researchers are building a strong foundation with rigorous, one-on-one measurements so they know exactly where they stand. That’s how they’re hitting the bulls-eye of real results from real world data, and why any claim to the contrary is way off target.

Scientists Hit Bulls-Eye in Targeting Cow Methane Emissions

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