Farm Ireland

Thursday 23 November 2017

How California is leading the battle against bovine flatulence

Cows produce approximately 200 litres of methane daily
Cows produce approximately 200 litres of methane daily
Dan Ryan

Dan Ryan

The month of December has been very mild. Weather records now show that 2016 was the hottest year on record. Climate change is a reality that the dairy industry here and globally will have to address in its future development.

Methane production is our primary concern. There are 1.5 billion cattle and 1 billion sheep globally. Cows produce approximately 200 litres of methane daily, and almost 33pc of Irish greenhouse gases come from agriculture. Some gases are more effective than others at making the planet warmer. Methane gas is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 25 year period.

In California, the Air Resources Board has set a 40pc reduction in methane emissions by 2030 based on 2013 levels. They have targeted the 'belching' and 'flatulence' of California's 5.5m dairy cows.

In recognition of the fact that methane is damaging to the environment but also a valuable energy resource, scientists in Argentina developed a novel idea to capture the methane produced by 'belching' cows. A tube was placed into the digestive tract of the cows. This tube links to an inflatable "balloon" strapped to the cows back. In excess of 200 litres of methane is separated from the various gases collected on a daily basis.

Can you imagine these stored gases being used to power a car!

There are concerns that the cows have to be anaesthetised to insert the tube for collecting the gases. Having a backpack strapped to the cow's back is another concern. In my opinion, the improved environment and facility to harvest energy from methane 'belching' cows has to be welcomed. Indeed, school backpacks have in recent years got heavier, but still not considered a welfare issue for our children.

Antimicrobial resistance is a technology that farmers will have to address in their food production systems in the near future. We have to face the reality that there has been excessive and unwarranted use of antibiotics on our farms. The challenges are not going to abate as herd sizes increase with greater stocking densities in a confined area.

Preventative health management programmes (PHMP) will have to be the norm in food production systems in the future. Technology has a place in monitoring the wellbeing of animals under our care. However, it will not replace the need for good facilities and stockmen to manage our cattle.

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We have to create an environment for our livestock at all stages of their production cycle which optimises their immunocompetence. In practice, this means optimisation of competition for food quantity and quality, comfort zones for feeding, resting and walking.

The need for antibiotics will be minimised and survivability of cattle in our food production systems will be optimised if PHMP is implemented. We have to move away from an approach of "how cheap can we produce our food within the farm gate" to creating a brand centred on PHMP and ultimately a more productive cow.

Water quantity and quality will be the new 'super levy' preventing expansion of dairy herd size in the future. However, curtailing levels of nitrates and phosphates in ground water could be problematic.

The challenge facing us is how concentrates of nitrogen and phosphorus can be maintained at optimal levels in our ground water leachate. In Holland, cow numbers have to be reduced by 200,000 to meet water quality regulations.

In Saudi Arabia in the near future, it will not be possible to grow forage using existing scarce water resources. Plans are afoot to import forage requirements from South America. How sustainable is this from a carbon footprint perspective?

Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at

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