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Cattle burps and climate change: CSU scientists studying methane emissions from beef cattle

AgNext is working to reduce methane emissions from beef industry
Cattle burps & climate change: CSU scientists studying methane emissions from beef cattle
Posted at 5:56 PM, Jul 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-26 20:01:05-04

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — At the intersection of agriculture and environmental sustainability is where the AgNext program at Colorado State University can be found.

The new initiative focuses on the development of sustainable solutions in animal agriculture, and part of that research happens in the climate-smart research pens, where hundreds of beef cattle are being studied.

“[Cattle] both impact and benefit the environment. And that's really what we study: how do we reduce the environmental impact and boost how they contribute beneficially to the environment?” explained Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, the director of AgNext. “So, these guys produce methane as part of their natural digestive processes. And we study the ways in which we can reduce it.”

Stackhouse-Lawson said when cattle digest food, a fermentation process occurs in their stomach, meaning gas is produced and must be released somehow.

“All of it comes out the front end of the animal, right? It's basically all cow burps. And so that's why our equipment just measures the front end of the animal because that's where the vast majority, 98% of the methane, comes from cattle," said Dr. Sara Place, an associate professor of feedlot systems at Colorado State University and AgNext.

The climate-smart research pens have a technology where a treat of sorts is dispensed for an individual steer, who eats the bait, and belches into the machine. The machine logs how much methane is emitted each time.

“The biggest, most surprising thing is just the variation from animal to animal," said Dr. Place.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 10% of 2021 greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Stackhouse-Lawson said livestock is responsible for less than 4% of that. Beef cattle make up the majority of the livestock chunk, at around 2.8% of the emissions, which include methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide.

“It might not be as much as the perception of them is, but when we think about methane, and methane is about 12% of the total greenhouse gases that are produced as estimated by EPA, they do produce a lot of that methane," said Stackhouse-Lawson, who said beef cattle account for approximately 27% of the methane pie.

Cattle burps and climate change: CSU scientists studying methane emissions from beef cattle

“Methane is a tremendous opportunity. And I think what we get excited about is they're always going to produce methane, right? And we want them to, we want them to, that's a part of their natural digestive process. And that means that they're healthy," said Stackhouse-Lawson. "But, if we could reduce methane some, that's an incredible lever to pull for this industry to get closer to climate neutrality and not having an impact on climate warming.”

Potential solutions for reducing the methane emitted by beef cattle include additives in their diets, examining the microbial population within the animal that does the fermentation, and analyzing if certain genetic makeups produce fewer emissions.

Dr. Place said their ultimate goal is establishing a baseline for methane emissions from beef cattle.

“For us, that most important thing is that baseline. And so, that's where we hope to influence in the next couple of years and have more information available for the cattle industry to better know and understand where they're at, and then from there they can improve," said Dr. Place.

The climate-smart research pens have around $1.3 million worth of equipment that Stackhouse-Lawson said has all been gifted or donated to the facility from beef producers who are interested in learning more about methane emissions.

“There's very little federal funding to study methane emissions from cattle. In fact, there's been less than five million in the last ten years that has been contributed by federal USDA research dollars," said Stackhouse-Lawson. "Most of the work that is being done in the space, enteric methane mitigation, is in partnership with producers who want to be better. And so, we're really thankful for those partnerships, and this facility is a testament to that relationship and the incredible producers that we have in Colorado."

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