Fighting emissions from cows burp by burp

3-31-14 cows_ecoliLimiting greenhouse gases to protect the environment has been an ongoing battle, but new science is finding a way to reduce the gases coming from one unusual source—cow burps.

According to a recent article, cow belching expels an impressive volume of greenhouse gases including methane and carbon dioxide and when you add it up, their burps  account for 26% of the United States’ total methane emissions. Along with cows, other ruminant animals, including goats, sheep, buffalo, and even camels, all burp methane.

This powerful greenhouse gas comes from the rumen, which is the first of the four sections in a cow’s stomach and helps them digest tough, fiber-rich foods like grass. However, it also produces gas. Most of this gas is belched—despite folklore about gases from the other end.

To combat this, scientists came up with the idea to mix cow feed with a compound called 3-nitrooxypropanol, or 3NOP, and found that when eaten it reduces methane in their burps by as much as 30%.

Just how did these scientists actually measure this reduction? Well, as stated in the article, the scientists developed backpacks for the 48 Holstein heifers involved in the study to wear for three months. From these backpacks were tubes running to their noses which measured the gas in their burps.

After only two weeks, burped methane dropped by roughly 30% and remained that way for the rest of the experiment. Even more remarkably, the article states, is that the cows suffered no negative effects including no issues digesting fiber; no change in milk production; no loss of appetite; and actually gained weight during the experiment—uncommon for lactating cows who invest massive amounts of energy into making milk.

According to the EPA, pound for pound, methane has 25 times more impact on climate than carbon dioxide over 100 years, so cow burps are truly an environmental hazard. In addition, as the livestock industry continues to grow to meet population demands, the EPA predicts cow burps will become even more problematic.

Scientists have searched for decades for a solution to cow burps, from feeding cows garlic oil to poking them with anti-methane vaccines, but aside from giving the cows smelly breath, their burps remained as methane-rich as ever.

3NOP is the most promising solution yet, Kristen Johnson, animal scientist at Washington State University said in the article. And if the results hold up with longer-term testing, the additive could work for the long haul in milk-producing cows—who are under great stress and have a high demand for nutrients.

Along with additional testing, the compound also has to pass the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process but the scientists involved believe big things are on the horizon.

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