This “clean cow” feed could help cut emissions from livestock

CC BY 2.0 Marc Dalmulder

A new way to feed cows cuts down on burping—and climate changing greenhouse gases.

For many, the answer to cutting methane emissions caused by livestock—a.k.a. cow burps—is simply to go vegan. But for lovers of cheese, yogurt and burgers, as well as the farmers who make their living from these animals, other solutions are of great interest.

By some calculations, livestock may contribute nearly 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire transportation sector. So, addressing this problem may be a key pathway to reducing global emissions and fighting climate change.

DSM, a Dutch science firm, has developed a powder that can be added to feed and inhibits the production of methane in the cow’s rumen. It’s like a climate-change-fighting diet supplement, if you will.

Dairy science researchers from DSM and Penn State University studied the effect of the supplement on 48 dairy cows over the course of 12 weeks. While more research remains to be done, they found promising results. They observed that cows whose feed contained the powder produced 30 percent less methane and gained weight compared to cows who ate typical diets. Milk production was not changed.

The researchers' findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a leading peer-reviewed journal.

This isn’t the first dietary intervention that aims to reduce cow emissions. German researchers created a methane-reducing pill, while scientists in Wales found that cows who consumed garlic produced 50 percent less gas (although it's unclear if a garlicky diet impacts the taste of milk or meat). And traditional animal husbandry practices could also be used to breed animals that burp less.

But the real challenge will be getting farmers to adopt any of the potential solutions, and as it stands there's little economic incentive for farmers and ranchers to reduce the emissions of their herds. Hugh Welsh, president of DSM North America, told The Washington Post that the company thinks the product could be a success if carbon pricing is in place. DSM hopes the product will be commercially available by 2018.

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