Though the debate around methane production as a result of mass animal agricultural farming has been largely credited to great volumes of cow flatulence, it seems the main culprit is coming out the other end. For the first time in history, researchers have been able to actually measure the rates of cow burps from space and evaluate their contribution to global warming and it’s—you guessed it—quite dire.
The burps of California cows in San Joaquin Valley were measured while guzzling down their typical feed and recorded via satellite imagery for the first time, forming a clear visual of the impact of the industry on the planet. The methane emissions were discovered by GHGSat’s—an environmental data company—high-resolution satellites in February and disclosed this week as part of its news release.
According to the global emissions monitoring company’s satellite, methane expulsion from just the specific feedlot in California ranged between 443 kilograms (977 pounds) to 668 kilograms (1470 pounds) per hour on 2 February 2022. Following the data collected, GHGSat suggested that if such emissions continued uninterruptedly for a full year, the released gas from the lot would be enough to actually power 15,402 homes.
Such findings were not as easy to discover previously—due to the challenge of measuring flatulence, as it dissipates quite easily by the wind. However, due to advancements in technology, this has been made more feasible. “This has not been done at an individual facility scale for the agriculture sector, as far as we know,” Brody Wight, a GHGSat sales director, said in the news release. “The idea is that we need to measure first before you can take real positive action.”
Wight additionally told CNN that the company’s satellites fly over an appointed region for a brief 20 seconds, in which it is able to capture a rapid “snapshot” of the emissions. This could mean that, in the future, a “temporal picture” can be formed of the rate of methane—whereby changes (such as the impact of different diets) can be monitored.
The advancements made by the company have aided in exposing the real culprit of methane emissions, it’s not farts—as first thought—but burps. According to GHGSat, digestive flatulence only accounts for a small amount of methane production via cattle (about 5 per cent), the majority 95 per cent is made up of both belching and expulsion through the nose.
According to NASA, this is known as enteric fermentation, a digestive process whereby sugars consumed are converted into molecules to be absorbed—methane being created as a byproduct of this development.
This latest research is a progressive step in highlighting the specific causes of environmental impact and can better aid the creation of necessary solutions. A focus on discovering the root of methane production is imperative since it has been reported to have 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years it reaches the atmosphere. Although carbon dioxide undoubtedly has a longer impact, the short-term repercussions of methane warming cannot be ignored.
Though there has been contradicting evidence for which is the largest producer of methane—agriculture or the energy sector—the contribution of cattle to the entire ordeal cannot be left out of the loop. The very fact that there have been reports their methane emission is higher than oil and gas is worrying enough. Hoping its findings can aid the road to finding bigger solutions, GHGSat aims to step up the amount of satellite analysis it carries out—moving from once a week to daily scans, Wight noted in his statement. The company hopes to have a fleet of ten satellites by 2023.
It’s your fever dream but also a coveted way to tackle climate change. Collaborating with Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Animal Health and Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN), a group of researchers have found a solution to reduce the environmental damage caused by livestock waste: toilet-training cows.
Farmed cattle are known for their notorious contribution to greenhouse gas emissions—producing roughly 66 to 88 pounds of faeces and 8 gallons of urine each day. When cows are kept outdoors, as in the case of New Zealand and Australia where they are free to roam and relieve themselves at their own leisure, the nitrogen from their urine breaks down into the soil. This results in the production of two toxic substances: nitrate and nitrous oxide.
While nitrate from these urine patches bleeds into lakes, rivers and aquifers, nitrous oxide emits into the environment as a long-lasting greenhouse gas which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The former pollutes water bodies and contributes to the excessive growth of weeds and toxic algae while the latter accounts for about 12 per cent of New Zealand’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.
On the flip side, when cows are sheltered in barns—like in Europe and North America—the practice results in the production of yet another polluting gas: ammonia. This by-product is produced when the nitrogen from cow urine mixes with faeces on the barn floor. Confining cows in such spaces could also be detrimental to their wellbeing in general. On the quest to strike a balance between their personal health and our planet’s, scientists decided to test and dispel a common myth surrounding cattle.
In a study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Current Biology, researchers proved that cows can be taught how to control their defecation or urination, just like human babies. “Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot. Why shouldn’t they be able to learn how to use a toilet?” said Doctor Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the FBN, in a press release. In their project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, the scientists applied principles from behavioural psychology to train young cattle to urinate in a particular place using a procedure called ‘backward chaining’.
In phase one, a total of 16 calves were confined in a latrine pen and rewarded with an electrolyte mixture or crushed barley when they urinated. This established the pen as an ‘ideal’ place to excrete. The calves were then placed in an alley outside and rewarded for entering the pen and urinating in the same place. If they began excreting in the alley, they were discouraged with a ‘deterrent’. “We first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside,” Langbein said in the press release. “We thought this would punish the animals, but they didn’t care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent.”
The calves were trained in this procedure—which the scientists have conveniently named “MooLoo training”—for 45 minutes every other day. After 15 days of training, 11 out of the 16 calves involved in the experiment were successfully “MooLoo trained.” Majority of them also learned the skill within 20 to 25 urinations—quicker than the time it usually takes to toilet train three to four year-old children.
“In a few years all cows will go to a toilet,” Langbein summed up. However, scaling this method for large-scale application in the agricultural industry involves two main challenges, which the scientists are planning to focus on in the coming stages of the project. First up is the automatic detection of urination in the latrine pen to deliver treats without human intervention. Optimal locations and number of latrine pens are the next hurdle. The latter is a particularly challenging issue in countries like New Zealand, where cattle spend most of their time in open paddocks rather than in barns.
“Part of our future research will require understanding how far cattle are willing to walk to use a pen,” the researchers wrote in a column for The Conversation. “And more needs to be done to understand how to best use this technique with animals in both indoor and outdoor farming contexts.” But what they do know for sure is that the MooLoo technique can significantly reduce the environmental impact of farmed cattle. “The more urine we can capture, the less we’ll need to reduce cattle numbers to meet emissions targets—and the less we’ll have to compromise on the availability of milk, butter, cheese and meat from cattle,” they concluded.
Dinosaurs may have excreted their way into extinction but the odds of history repeating itself is finally at an all-time low.