Limiting The Greenhouse Gas Impact Of Daisy, Dolly, And Other Animals

Cows’ gas attacks are a major cause of climate change. What if we could breed a cow with fewer emissions?

Ruminant animals, like cows, produce a lot of methane—almost a quarter of U.S. emissions annually. And methane’s a nasty greenhouse gas. By some estimates, it has 25 times the potency of carbon dioxide.

Cows produce methane mostly when they belch (though also from farting). The gas is a byproduct of fibrous material the animals digest through their multi-chambered guts. The emissions, in fact, are not only bad for the atmosphere. They are also a sign of inefficiency: the cows are wasting energy, rather than making use of it.

John Wallace, a professor at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, is leading a big European Union-funded project, called Ruminomics, to look at new breeding methods that might lead to less methane output.

Scientists already know that certain diets lead cows to produce less methane. For example, in France one company is feeding its herds a mixture of alfalfa, linseed and grass, instead of a more standard corn and soy-based mix. As a result, it says the cows produce 20% less gas than normal. Similarly, in the U.S. many farmers use an antibiotic called Monensin which reduces methane by an estimated 15% (despite being banned in Europe for other reasons).

What interests Wallace, however, is that some animals seem to produce less (or more) methane under all conditions—in other words, irrespective of breed, and irrespective of what they are fed. There seems to be a genetic basis for gas releases, rather than just an environmental one.

"We have little evidence that breed makes any difference to methane emitted per kilogram of feed intake. It’s the inter-animal variation that is crucial for future breeding programs," he says, via email.

It’s still early days for the research. Wallace’s team has looked at the genetics of only 25 of 1,400 cows so far, and the project has another two and a half years to run. But, by the end of 2015, he should have finished developing saliva and milk tests that allow farmers to select animals that produce less methane.

If so, the work could be useful in curbing the problem of ruminant pollution.

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  • biochemistrystudent

    Before skipping the logical investigation of the CAUSE of the generation of methane, how about you try feeding them what they've evolved to eat--grass, instead of government-subsidized corn which then necessitates the use of loads of antibiotics. Why do we think we can do a better job than nature, which has been perfected over millions of years.

  • charles.hoffman.cpa

    the cow is not a particularly efficient machine for converting grain into protein; chickens rule!!

  • J. nal

    "Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

  • Jwf49240

    The thought that cow farts are a serious enviromental issue makes me laugh.    I think I will start a dairy farm and feed my herd a steady diet of Mexican food and Natural Lite beer.   That will be my protest against such crap science.

  • BradMueller

    I'd be willing to bet that just one volcanic eruption puts more gaseous effluents into the atmosphere than all the cows....................ever.

  • rushevents

    The problem is not that PURE methane could be a greenhouse gas - no the problem is the fact that cows - nor people for that matter give off pure methane. The gas coming out of cows is impure, heavier than air and hits the ground.

    By the way last I heard the earth had not warmed at all in the last decade.

    Now before you loose your mind and scream "Weather is not climate!" I have to say you cannot have it both ways:

    Prior to January 2010 - every time (and I mean every) there was a hot spell or a hurricane the alarmists screamed Global Warming from the roof tops.

    Yet now when the numbers say that it wasn't actually hotter than normal over the last decade we are told it doesn't matter - weather/temperature is not climate?

    CO2 goes up and temps should move right along with it right?http://homeguides.sfgate.com/c...

    Huricanes caused the same hysteria:

    Huricane Katrina caused by GW?

    Yet with the exception of 2005 the last decade has been average-to-low intensity hurricanes

    Believe it or not I am not an outright skeptic and do believe our climate is in a state of change. The very real problem warming alarmists have encountered is that it has now become a political play. Meaning that those who champion it cannot back down to the point of fanaticism. 

    The scientist's job is to hypothesize & then test to try to disprove. Yet when conflicting data pops up we're told it doesn't matter.

    Can you really blame a skeptic? Alarmists can't even keep their own stories straight.

  • rushevents

    "We have little evidence that breed makes any difference to methane emitted..."
    You forgot to say "We have little evidence that cows contribute to global warming in ANY way."

  • Apexerman

    Review the EPA's research concerning methane emission.  According to the intro page, "Methane's lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2), but CH4 is more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2over a 100-year period." 

    Sufficient evidence does exist to link livestock to global warming.  More extensive information can be found on the website.