Studying Gassy Cows

There are currently 1.5 billion cattle on the planet. It’s reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) that cattle production is responsible for at least 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. I’m sure most of you have heard that there’s too much carbon dioxide in the air and that this is the cause of climate change. However, it’s proven and true that cattle production is very clearly a threat to the climate and the environment as a whole.

Cattle are ruminants, which means they have a four compartment stomach. Unlike humans, digestion takes place in cattle’s stomachs instead of their intestines. The rumen of a cow’s stomach is filled with bacteria that aid in digestion. However, these bacteria are also responsible for producing methane. Cattle manure, burps, and gas all contain methane. Although every cow’s emission levels are different, the amount of methane released by cattle is often compared to that produced by a car in a day. That’s a lot of methane.

So what do we do about it? Many people believe limiting cattle production would be the best place to start. However, the cattle industry supplies us with a lot of food. It wouldn’t be feasible to cut cattle production completely. Replacing our meat source could be an option, but, to state the obvious, people like their steak. Instead, there are multiple studies currently going on in an attempt to lower methane emissions.

Although many different studies are currently being conducted, they are all basing their studies off of the same concepts. Scientists are taking cattle, confining them, and monitoring them day by day. Cattle are often placed in their own chamber, which consists of clear walls so they can see the other cattle. Cattle develop a hierarchy in the heard, and can usually identify 60-70 different cattle from their herd. By allowing them to see one another, they continue their regular routine and are much easier to manage while conducting tests and gathering results. Their genotype, feed type and ration, and microbial makeup in the rumen are what are being monitored. As is their manure and methane emission rate.

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A cow sporting a methane measuring technology in Australia.

A lot of scientists have different ideas about how to limit methane release. Many are looking into the food cattle are eating and attempting to figure out what ingredients cause cattle to release the most methane. Some scientists are looking into the rumen to attempt to edit the microbes inside of it. Other scientists are strictly looking into genetics because they believe a specific gene causes the methane release. Better yet, there are scientists trying to do all three of those things and more.

Scientists are looking to breed the perfect cow. Cattle with less methane emissions have been bred, but there’s more to look at than the effects on climate change. Scientists must find the perfect breed for reduced methane release while maintaining productivity. Diminishing productivity isn’t a feasible option. Commercial cattle production is entirely too important to our economy. Part of the issue lies in the fact that cattle were designed to be grass fed. Over the years we’ve strayed away from that and added unnecessary items to their diet in order to make them larger and better to eat. With this, has come the change of the microbial makeup of their rumens. A simple solution would be to switch cattle back to only being grass fed, however, this wouldn’t solve the issue completely and productivity would be limited.

The hope is that the answer lies in the genetic make-up of cattle. Countries all over the world have looked into the idea, and one of these days they hope to find an answer. If editing the DNA of cattle can cause them to release less methane, then we’re taking a leap in the right direction. However, finding the answer doesn’t necessarily solve it. Once we’ve found what causes cattle to release methane at such a high level, we have to get all cattle to release methane at a lower level and maintain productivity.

It’s been and will continue to be a long journey, but when the answer is found the industry will jump for joy!

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My name is Jennifer Schwerer. I had the privilege of growing up on a family farm not far from Macomb. I am currently a Junior at Western Illinois University studying agricultural business with a minor in Accounting. In my free time you can catch me riding four-wheelers, hanging out with friends, or playing with my dog!

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