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Cow farts are a big problem, but scientists are already tackling it

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Posted July 17, 2019

Methane is greenhouse gas. It contributes to global warming and is generally undesirable in places where people live. 37 % of the methane emissions resulting from human activity are literally just cow farts. While we can improve our waste management and factories, can we improve our cows? Scientists from the University of Adelaide say that we can and we should.

Here is one of those polluters – hows emit tonnes of methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Image credit: Keith Weller/USDA via Wikimedia

A single cow farts out between 70 and 120 kg of methane per year. That’s a huge amount, having in mind that there are about 1.5 billion cattle in the world. Cows produce methane in their unique gastrointestinal tract, which has a unique microbiome in the ruminal fluid. Scientists analyzed samples of 1000 cows, measured the cows’ feed intake, milk production, methane production and other biochemical characteristics and found ways to reduce the methane content in cows’ farts. Of course, this will not require any kind of drastic changes – we just need better cows.

Rumen is the first stomach in the digestive system of ruminant animals ( such as cattle and sheep). Scientists found that cow’s genetics strongly determine the microbiome in the rumen. In other words, this study revealed that the amount of methane-producing microbes in the cow’s rumen is determined by its genetic makeup. And this is great news, because we know many ways of how to change the genetics of various animals.

One known way of reducing methane emissions of cows is to change their diet, but farmers don’t even like that idea. We grow what we can and we feed cows what we can – it is not feasible to buy some kind of engineered feed for farm animals. That would be too expensive. Besides, changing cows’ genetic makeup would bring much more significant results.

We can breed cows that emit less methane – we now know it is possible, but it will not be easy. The big challenge is to combine all the desired characteristics for a cow. It still has to produce a lot of milk and high quality meat – can these characteristics be maintained while we reduce cow’s methane emissions? Scientists say that introducing low-methane cows could actually be beneficial in more than one way.

Professor John Williams, co-author of the study, said: “We don’t yet know, but if it turned out that low-methane production equated to greater efficiencies of production – which could turn out to be true given that energy is required to produce the methane – then that would be a win, win situation”.

Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, but it is also a great fuel. Of course, collecting cows’ farts is simply not possible (and very gross), but manure is used to produce methane, which can be used as a fuel.

 

Source: University of Adelaide

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