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Colorado Scientists Delve Into Cattle Intestines to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By Rae Solomon

In many ways, the research pens at Colorado State University are what you’d find on your standard cattle feedlot. There are cows, of course, plenty of mud, and the inevitable, nostril-turning stench of livestock.

But this feedlot, at CSU's agricultural research and education center in Fort Collins, doubles as a scientific laboratory. It's where researchers in the AgNext program - a specialized research group for sustainability in animal agriculture - are learning about the greenhouse gases cows produce as they stand around digesting food. The feedlot is tricked out with millions of dollars of equipment that allow scientists to track everything that goes into each cow, along with some of what comes out.

Specialized feed bins use radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to track every ounce of corn consumed on a per cow basis. Another piece of equipment called the GreenFeed machine analyzes the gases cattle exhale. It's a bit like a high-tech gumball machine, dispensing tasty cow treats – alfalfa pellets – on a schedule, and at the beckoning of a smartphone app operated by researchers.

On a chilly afternoon in March, Colorado State University Animal Sciences Professor Sara Place demonstrated the technology, tapping a button on her phone. A high-pitched electronic chime sounded and the alfalfa pellets dropped into an opening at cow level, catching the attention of a big-eyed angus who moseyed up for a bite to eat.

“He's got his head stuck in the machine and he's chowing down a little bit of a snack,” Place explained.

Despite common misconceptions about the perils of bovine flatulence, most methane comes out of the cow’s front end in the form of enteric emissions. That means each time an cow gets a snack from the GreenFeed machine, Place has an opportunity to get information.

“The air gets pulled from around the animal's face, and whatever they're respiring out goes directly into the machine,” Place said. “We can get real time methane emissions data from that.”

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that has a warming power 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years of emission. The animal agriculture industry, which includes all operations that raise animals for meat or dairy, produces more methane than any other human activity in the U.S.

Climate experts say we’re running out of time to prevent climate catastrophe. To avoid the worst of it, experts say it is imperative to cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically before 2030. Environmental groups have ambitious goals to reduce agricultural methane emissions by 30% globally by the year 2030.

Stackhouse Lawson's team is only now doing the work of developing more precise numbers. She cited surprising initial data from CSU's research pens that shows the quantities of methane cows produce can vary wildly from animal to animal, suggesting an entirely new frontier for the research.

“Is there a genetic component?” She wondered. “Would we select animals that have lower methane?”

The CSU team is also looking at other variables like feed additives that can cut emissions outright.

John Tauzel, senior director for global agriculture methane with the Environmental Defense Fund, explained successful additives “will change the biome of the cow’s stomach to reduce the amount of methanogens—the organisms that create the methane.” It's a solution he went on to describe as “really, really complex," because of the complicated structure of the livestock industry and the biological intricacies of cattle microbiomes.

That complex problem remains only partially-solved, in part due to lack of funding for the research. Tauzel pointed out that only 2% of federal funds that support research and development for climate adaptation and mitigation in agriculture go toward reducing enteric emissions.

“We need more investment in that space if we're going to meet the reductions in timeframes that we need,” Tauzel said.

That investment is starting to come. Just last week, the team at AgNext announced it had received a $1 million Conservation Innovation grant from the US Department of Agriculture. The money will support continued research into emissions on the feedlot. It will also allow the researchers to expand their inquiry into cattle emissions to look at cows grazing in a pasture setting.

Stackhouse Lawson hopes more funding could be part of the next Farm Bill currently being negotiated in congress.

Apart from the scarcity of feedlot-ready solutions, Lilliston points to factory farming itself – an industrial system hell-bent on continual growth - as the main culprit.

“Even if you're able to reduce emissions a small amount by some of these scientific advances, if you're going to continue to grow and expand the number of animals that are part of that system, then you're going to negate those gains,” he said.

He thinks of the emerging technologies as a distraction from the bigger question that we’re not asking: how many beef and dairy cows do we need in this country? After all, a more immediate solution to the livestock methane conundrum is to have fewer cows.

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