Researchers Tune In To Cow Burps

People are paying attention to your dairy cows in a way you probably would have never thought. Their burps!

The gasses that cows release in burps contain methane. While it adds only a sliver to U.S. methane emissions, Dairy Management Inc. sees an opportunity here to add to agriculture’s sustainability picture.

Juan Tricarico is senior vice president of environmental research and distinguished scientist at DMI. He also serves as director of The Greener Cattle Initiative. This is a research group investing private and public dollars toward three big research projects, including one in Wisconsin. The projects are looking at cow burps, and how to reduce the methane in them.

Cows and other ruminant animals produce enteric methane as part of their natural digestive process. Projections show global demand for milk and meat will increase by more than 60 percent in the next decades. So, livestock production will need to expand as well, increasing enteric methane emissions. Reducing these emissions can help the dairy and beef sectors meet their sustainability goals. However, more research is needed to determine how to safely, sustainably and productively reduce the amount of methane cows produce.

UW-Madison Professor Francisco Peñagaricano got more than $2.3 million to conduct research combining interventions that address selective breeding, data on milk composition, and rumen microbes to reduce methane. His research focuses on evaluating cattle genome for methane traits, including those for methane production and residual methane production. The goal is to use this new knowledge to inform the selective breeding of U.S. dairy cattle with lower emissions. The Council on Dairy Cattle Breeding is contributing additional funding for a total $3.3 million investment.

“The research investments announced today can potentially deliver new mitigation options and long-term benefits,” says Tricarico. “Studying hydrogen production and utilization in the rumen can uncover new pathways for development of yet unexplored mitigation options, and generating the information needed to selectively breed low methane-producing cattle can lead to permanent improvements that accumulate over time.”

He says the folks with dairy buying power are engaged in environmental sustainability. That’s why reducing methane emissions has become a priority to increase the demand for dairy.

Two More Methane Projects

Microorganisms in the rumen, the large fermentation vat that serves as the first compartment of the ruminant stomach, use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce large volumes of methane. University of Illinois Professor Roderick Mackie got nearly $2.5 million lead an international research study on how diets and different additives affect hydrogen production and utilization in the rumen of both beef and dairy cattle and how these changes in hydrogen dynamics affect the amount of enteric methane produced. The University of Illinois is contributing additional funding for a total $3.2 million investment.

Penn State Professor Alexander N. Hristov also got a grant to develop new enteric methane inhibitors, naturally occurring or synthetic compounds that when ingested by cows can decrease enteric methane emissions. Hristov’s research is also exploring ways to deliver inhibitors to cattle efficiently.