New Tool Could Help Create More Climate-Friendly Cows

New Tool Could Help Create More Climate-Friendly Cows

Measuring the contents of a belching bovine's breath, may not sound like the simplest -- or most appealing -- job, but for a few scientists determined to breed greenhouse friendly animals, it's all part of a day's work.

Now that work has been made easier by new technology developed to measure the amount of methane expelled from ruminants.

Animal nutritionist Roger Hegarty at New South Wales Agriculture, believes equipment produced by his team is a robust and simple way of measuring emissions of this greenhouse gas from cows. He also says it could be the key to putting livestock industries at the forefront of a carbon trading global economy.

Dr. Hegarty explained: "The cattle continue to eat and drink normally while a flexible tube draws air from above the mouth into an evacuated collection canister, sitting on top of a saddle. The canister continuously collects a sample of the air they breathe out, then every two days the canister is replaced and taken back to the laboratory where the methane gas emission is measured."

Cattle are thought to produce 14% of all greenhouse gases in Australia. The researchers believe that by reducing their emissions impact, effectively creating an ozone-friendlier cow, agriculture can benefit greatly from international carbon trading schemes.

This new measuring method will allow the scientists to see how much of an impact their reduction techniques are having.

The scientists are exploring pro-biotics -- a system that naturally steers the digestive process in the rumen into a low methane fermentation pattern. They have discovered feed efficient animals -- those that need less feed to produce the same level of performance, produce less 13% less methane than feed inefficient animals. How the cattle become feed efficient is something the scientists are still researching, but it is something farmers can breed for, Dr. Hegarty said.

Despite the recent decision by the Australian Greenhouse Office to halt work on a national emissions trading scheme, Dr. Hegarty believes the international scheme still holds a market for agriculture.

"I believe when carbon has value, industries that can make a lot of money out of producing carbon will do very well but this may put a lot of pressure on the livestock industries," he said.

He explained: "Our research is not dependent on the carbon trading activities of the AGO. While inputting to national policy is important, our job as a state department and my job as a scientist is to equip our agricultural sector to operate with optimum efficiency and the lowest possible level of environmental impact. For greenhouse this means providing practical emissions abatement strategies, and a better understanding of greenhouse dynamics for the livestock industry in particular."

The scientists estimate they are about five years away from bringing about a stable change in the digestive system of cattle and sheep, which will reduce methane emissions.