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This month in Finland, a team of intrepid researchers herded one
thousand European cows one-by-one into a glass “metabolic chamber”
to measure their methane emissions, digestion, production
characteristics, energy-efficiency, metabolism, and the microbial
make-up of their rumens.
The Project is known as RuminOmics, but if it
had been titled The Truman Show II: When the Cows Come Home,
we wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.
The Cow Emission Crisis. No Kidding Around.
The ultimate aim of the study was to find an optimal,
low-emission, high-yield cow, and the team noted in its premise
that of all greenhouse gases produced by humans, five percent
comes from cattle.
By most conventional measures, that’s more than the global
aviation industry. So, when we consider the cost and intensity of
the effort to develop sustainable aviation fuels, it adds
perspective to this laudable effort to produce a Low Carbon Cow.
Specifically, 16 percent of greenhouse gas impact consists of
methane, of which one third originates in cattle production: more
than one billion cattle graze the planet, and each of them emit
around 500 liters of methane every day.
The Research team
RuminOmics is led by the University of Aberdeen and funded by the
EU; in all, ten other European research institutes, investigated
the interaction between a ruminant’s genotype, feed, and the
microbial make-up of the rumen, examining the role these factors
played in the energy-efficiency of dairy cattle and their methane
emissions. Cows’ daily feed consumption and milk production is
measured and recorded, and the manure and urine produced is
Food creates fuel
The researchers expected that that Finnish and Swedish cows would
produce more methane than cows in other countries. “This is
attributable to their feed which is dominated by silage, not by
the climate.” Yet, results from the study indicate that “many cows
with low methane emissions are inefficient due to the fact that
they are unable to make use [of the energy] contained in fodder.”
So, it’s not simply a case of selecting cows with low emissions
compared to the rest, or varying the diet.
Older and more productive cows emit less
Practice may make perfect, in this case. The researchers found
that “relative methane emissions of a cow per production unit,
kilo of milk or beef are reduced if the production level or
production age are increased.” So, longer lives and better
production conditions play a role. Lucky for the cows.
The genetics of low-carbon cows
The study identified areas in the cow’s genotype, the variation
of which was linked to the amount of methane produced per kilo of
milk produced. So, can a Super Low-Carb cow be identified and can
this genotype be bred for.
Consider that noble alternative to the Holstein, the Jersey or
the Thai Milking Zebu. For your consideration, the Carbonfree.
Researchers are optimistic.
“We will investigate” said their report, “whether these genes
affect the variation in the microbial make-up of cows’ rumen or
other characteristics of cows such as the size of their rumen,
production level of capability to use fodder.”
Making healthier milk
One other impact area of the study? How microbes in the cow’s
intestine and rumen on their part play a key role in the
functioning of the cow’s entire biological system.
Earlier this week in the Digest we looked at the impact of gut
flora (the micro-biome) on human health and the relationship of
nutrition and gut health, here.
But there might be a combination of nutritional advantage and
progress on greenhouse gas emissions from this work. For example,
researchers were targeting microbes to better understand how and
why microbes in the cow’s intestine and rumen transform
unsaturated fatty acids in fodder into saturated fatty acids in
milk. 70 percent of the fats in milk comprises solid fats.
The Low Carbon Cow Standard
If researchers find impactful opportunities, we may find
ourselves with the opportunity for a global Low Carbon Cow
Standard. Well, it’s silly of course. But not completely.
Consider the climate advantages from, say, reducing cow emissions
by half in 2050 compared aa baseline of say, 2005. That would be
equivalent to the impact of the entire Sustainable Aviation
movement around the world through 2050. And, we might well in
addition see a healthier milk in terms of fat profile and
nutritional content, or even taste and human digestibility.
So bring on those herds of Carbonfrees.
Jim Lane is editor and
publisher of Biofuels Digest where this
was originally published.
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