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Cows that burp less could also save you money

Reducing methane from cattle means a reduction in greenhouse gases – and the key to that is feed efficiency

Cows that burp less are also more feed efficient.

That’s the initial results of a study conducted by Thomas Flesch, a meteorologist from the University of Alberta and John Basarab, a University of Alberta professor and beef research scientist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lacombe research station.

The two scientists are using lasers to measure methane emissions produced by beef cattle.

“Efficient animals eat less for the same amount of growth. They release less methane,” said Basarab.

The scientists are in the first year of a three-year project. For each trial, they use two sets of cattle — one with high feed efficiency and one control group. The control group eats two per cent more forage for the same amount of weight gain as the efficient group.

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The cattle’s methane emissions are measured by an open path sensor that records the amount of methane in the air.

“The principle is kind of like those scenes in ‘Mission Impossible’ when you have a diamond in a museum. You’re worried about people getting to it, so you surround it with lasers. Our diamond is the cattle, and our lasers are measuring the methane that escapes from the cattle,” said Flesch.

The lasers capture methane measurements from anywhere in the cattle paddock, no matter which way the wind is blowing, 24-7.

“They can capture a fraction of the methane emitted,” said Flesch. “That’s where the meteorology comes in because it’s controlled by the wind and the turbulence.”

The team takes measurements of the grazing animals for 10 days.

The scientists initially started the data collection as part of another study done last year.

“A year ago, we found that feed-efficient animals ate five per cent less forage and emitted eight per cent less methane during the course of the trial,” said Flesch.

Since preliminary data has shown feed efficiency has been shown to be tied to less methane, people in the cattle industry will be able to say that they’re lowering their carbon footprint if they transition to more feed-efficient herds.

That’s sure to win the approval of consumers, government and environmental groups, said Flesch.

The animals used in the trial come from the Lacombe and Kinsella research ranches.

“These animals were selected for feed efficiency based on dry lot conditions, not the pasture environment where there is so much to measure,” said Flesch.

It’s a popular misconception that most of the methane produced by a cow is produced at the back end. Instead, 95 per cent of the methane emitted from a cow comes from burps, while only five per cent from flatulence.

“They really are methane machines and when you worry about greenhouse gases from agriculture and you want to reduce it, you really are drawn to look at the beef herd. That’s where the majority of our greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture comes from.”

The eventual goal is to have a breeding program for a more efficient herd.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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