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Bovine burp catcher — zany idea to reduce methane from cattle

inhauscreative/Getty Images cow chewing cud
BORN THIS WAY: A cow chews cud that is regurgitated from her rumen, the largest of a cow's four stomachs. Methane is naturally produced in the cow’s rumen during fermentation and is released when she regurgitates her food to chew.
A cow mask under development raises questions about the labor and management necessary to use the product.

Poor Bessie — what discrimination she faces for being a ruminant and chewing her cud!

Cattle have been on the global warming A list for some time now as major contributors of greenhouse gases. In the crosshairs are their bovine burps, which emit methane gas. Methane is naturally produced in the cow’s rumen during fermentation and is released when she regurgitates her food to chew.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally, 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions come from cattle. North America’s portion is roughly 1.2% of all global emissions.

Ongoing research looks at ways to reduce methane generation by cattle. Adding dietary supplements is a key area. University of California scientists have found that adding seaweed can reduce methane by as much as 90%. And a Swiss company found claims its garlic-based additive can reduce methane production by 40%.

The zaniest research idea I’ve heard? Fitting a mask over the bovine nose that would absorb those hot methane burps.

High-tech masks

I recently read that Cargill Inc. is partnering with a United Kingdom-based company, Zelp Ltd., to market these “masks,” which are fitted onto regular halters. Zelp claims its technology halves methane levels in cattle exhalations. The mask also has data monitoring technology built into it that could be used to minimize disease and enhance feed optimization, the company website says.

In the news story, it was pointed out that Cargill rolled out a program last year to cut U.S. beef emissions by 30%. Investing in the cow mask is another effort to prove company responsibility and to stay on consumers’ good sides. However, the company wouldn’t plan to use its mask on beef here. It’s focused on dairy cattle. A company spokesperson said the cow mask could be of interest to dairy farmers looking to sell “climate-smart milk.”

What about labor and safety?

Without some major premium, credit or cost-share, I don’t see dairy farmers buying hundreds of halters and fitting them with high-tech cow masks. A couple reasons quickly come to mind: Labor and animal safety. It’s one more chore to fit into a day filled with milking, feeding, cleaning, breeding, maintenance, herd health, calf care, crop management, etc.

I remember in the late 1980s when bovine somatotrophin, in its early research phase, was given as a daily injection. That did nothing to excite dairy farmers, because injecting cows every day took too much time. Eventually, the product was formulated to be a sustained-release product given every 14 days, easing the labor concern.

Granted, the time involved in haltering and fitting a cow mask would be a one-time-per-cow event. But what about follow-up to make sure the mask is doing its job? What about daily management to ensure the technology is consistently interfacing with a farm’s monitoring system?

Animal safety comes to mind for me, too. That’s a herd of halters on 24/7 that could get caught somewhere in the freestall barn, holding pen or parlor.

Today’s cows more ‘green’

The larger issue for my concern is the microscope on cattle and their impact on the environment. In 1950, the U.S. had 25 million cows. Today, we’re at 9.4 million, and they are producing 60% more milk. According to University of California, Davis, scientist Frank Mitloeher, that means the U.S. dairy industry’s carbon footprint is down by two-thirds.

Don’t get me wrong. I have concerns about climate change and agree we all need to do our part with mitigation.

Having a cow wear a mask, however, is just plain silly.


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