Cow burps targeted as researchers look for ways to cut methane emissions

At Rimrock Feeders, a feedlot west of High River, Alberta, a cow’s typical diet consists of corn, distillers grains (leftovers from ethanol manufacturing), silage , vitamins and minerals.

It is a mixture that evolves over time to improve the health of the herd.

But now, innovators are investigating how changes to feed could also help reduce methane emissions caused by cow burps.

“I think this represents an opportunity for farmers and consumers,” said Karen Beauchemin, Honorary Affiliate Researcher with Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge.

“We could reduce the amount of methane released into the atmosphere by our livestock in the future.”

Cows carry bacteria in their stomachs that help break down fibrous plant matter, but they also produce methane as a byproduct, which is released into the atmosphere.

About a third of all greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector come from the digestive activities of livestock. This represents more than three percent of Canada’s overall GHG emissions.

Producers are already making changes to help reduce their contribution, but faster and more effective changes will be needed if Canada is to meet its goal of reducing methane emissions by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030.

One of the most promising solutions, according to industry experts, are food additives.

And feedlots in Alberta are the easiest place to start using them, according to Dr. Calvin Booker, a veterinarian with Feedlot Health Management Services, a consulting service based in Okotoks, Alta.

“We give the animals a diet that we prepare every day,” he said. “Of all feedlot production in Canada, 70% takes place here in Alberta.”

Cattle farmers have already made some improvements to help reduce methane emissions from their animals, such as reducing fiber in their diets, selective breeding and improving herd health. (Monica Kidd)

Some studies have already started, while others are in the planning stage. At least one additive, three-nitrooxypropanol, or 3-NOP, shows between 25 and 80% reduction in methane emissions.

“There is no doubt that the effects on methane production are real. They are repeatable and profound,” Booker said.

Methane blockage

Additives like 3-NOP act as a methane inhibitor. It mimics another molecule in the digestive process, replacing it and blocking methane production.

Beauchemin studied the chemical for almost a decade as part of a research consortium.

“We give different doses to cattle in different diets and measure methane emissions as well as feed consumption and weight gain,” she said.

“What we found was enteric methane – that is, methane produced by the animal and exhaled through the mouth and nose – was reduced on average by about 30 percent.”

To further test the results, Booker was driven to scale up the research, which eventually involved 15,000 cattle at a feedlot over two years.

Dr. Calvin Booker has worked with feedlots for about 30 years. Here he visits Rimrock Feeders near Longview, Alberta. (Monica Kidd)

“Number 1 is animal health and welfare…and to ensure that the use of a feed additive like 3-NOP will not have adverse effects,” he said. .

“We need to understand how this fits into overall sustainability because environmental sustainability is just one aspect of overall sustainability. There has to be economic sustainability out of something and obviously there has to be economic sustainability as well. have ethical sustainability.”

The cost of the additive is also a bit of a mystery.

3-NOP is used in the European Union, Chile and Brazil, where it is considered a food additive. Canada and the United States treat it like a drug, which requires a much more rigorous and time-consuming approval process.

The biggest challenge, for now, is figuring out what will entice livestock producers to actually use the chemical when it’s readily available.

Even if it turns out to have no negative effects, 3-NOP is unlikely to have an impact on feed efficiency, Booker said. This means that farmers are unlikely to produce more meat using it.

Instead, he says, some form of carbon credit could stimulate interest.

“There are protocols in place for producers … to claim offsets and have them go through the regulated emissions market here in Alberta, and there would be monetary value associated with that,” Booker said.

Other novelties

3-NOP isn’t the only innovation on the horizon that Alberta cattle producers can look forward to.

Elena Vinco is a researcher and policy analyst at the Simpson Center in the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. She co-authored a paper published in April on near-term methane reduction options in Alberta’s beef and dairy industry.

One of them is 3-NOP, but there is also a food additive derived from tropical red algae.

“There are a few different types in terms of species, but they all seem to demonstrate fairly consistent methane reduction potential,” she said.

“We really wanted to clarify what was achievable in Alberta and Western Canada, as well as what is achievable in the short term.”

Another short-term fix that researchers often hear is to “eat less red meat.” But Beauchemin says it’s not as simple as it sounds, both in terms of environmental consequences and impacts on the food chain.

“I’m not saying it can’t be part of the equation, but there can be unintended consequences. And they’re not always obvious to consumers.”

Vinco hopes that with a few innovations, Alberta cattle producers will be able to lead the way in reducing agricultural methane emissions in the country.

“I think a lot of the burden, perhaps unfairly, is placed on the farmers, who are really trying their best,” she said. “They really prioritize sustainable practices.”