No doubt, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The world is heating up, and fingers are pointing at these emissions as the main problem.
Agriculture is being blamed for its role in the problem. Cattle in particular are said to be a problem because they emit methane, a greenhouse gas, when they pass gas or burp – the latter being associated with their unique digestive system, which also allows them to eat grass and convert it to energy.
The beef sector is pushing back. It doesn’t disagree that cows emit some methane. But it thinks too much blame is being put on cattle.
It notes that cow manure on a pasture revitalizes the grass that the cows eventually eat. As a result, farmers and ranchers don’t have to fertilize their pastures with artificial fertilizer. The pasture is seldom tilled, if ever.
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That means the soil sequesters carbon dioxide that the grass takes in and transfers to its roots. In this way, cattle are actually keeping greenhouse gas in check.
But if we’re going to reach greenhouse gas reduction targets, we have to stop pointing fingers and actually do something. After all, says University of Copenhagen researcher Henning Otte Hansen, “cows cannot reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.”
He’s keenly aware of the issue because Denmark, host country to this year’s International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ congress, has set some of the planet’s most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals.
And he thinks that instead of saying let’s reduce the number of cattle, people should intervene to help the cattle reduce their own environmental footprint.
For example, can their feed be changed so when it’s digested its emissions are less of a problem?
Many researchers and companies think so. A Swiss-based company, DSM, has created a feed treatment that suppresses the enzyme that triggers methane production in the rumen and reduces emissions by about 30 per cent in dairy cows and up to 90 per cent in beef cows. It’s on the market now.
The United States Department of Agriculture is looking into how reusing brewer’s yeast can help.
Brewer’s yeast is used to make beer. It’s typically discarded once it’s no longer needed. But over the years, creative farmers and ranchers have found the leftover yeast can be mixed into livestock feed as an attractive source of protein and vitamins.
Most lately, researchers found the yeast also results in the cows belching less methane into the air.
They took samples of spent brewer’s yeast used to make six different kinds of beer at a North Carolina brewery, and added them to flasks containing live cultures of either methane- or ammonia-producing microbes.
The samples showed a direct connection between the concentration of hops compounds in the spent yeast and the amount of gas produced.
Another Danish company, DLF Seeds, is working “heavily” on perennial livestock feed crops with higher digestibility, that will lead animals to produce less methane. DFL exports seed all over the world.
Says company CEO Truels Damsgaard: “When we look at the climatic challenges we are facing, it’s basically a new unknown in the plant breeding world.”
But what is known is that the cows need a hand.