Scottish scientists reduce flatulence in cows to protect the environment

But with cattle, too much belching is much harder to endure: the methane gas they emit in large quantities is believed to be the main contributor to climate change.

Now Scottish researchers are studying how to drastically reduce harmful methane emissions from windy cattle, potentially halving the problem within a decade.

Methane is a by-product of the digestive process that allows ruminants such as cows, goats and sheep to convert grass and forage into energy and protein by rumen microbes, ultimately producing high-quality beef.

In some cases, however, ruminants can produce up to 500 liters of methane per day.

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The powerful greenhouse gas methane is 28 times more potent than CO2 and has been responsible for around 30% of global anthropogenic emissions since pre-industrial times. A major 2021 UN report identified reducing methane emissions as crucial in the fight against climate change.

While the fossil fuel industry is responsible for 34% of methane emissions and the waste sector for 20%, around 40% is due to agriculture – specifically the world’s more than 1 billion cattle and dairy cattle.

However, new research led by Professor Rainer Roehe of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) suggests that using special breeding techniques could reduce methane emissions by up to 17% per generation.

Using sophisticated measurement methods to measure how much gas is emitted by cattle, it has been found that certain animals have a natural disposition to produce lower methane emissions.

By selecting them for breeding, they can gradually cause a shift in the cattle population and ultimately help significantly reduce the amount of methane they emit.

Focusing on breeding animals that naturally produce less methane would be an additional weapon in the fight against emissions. Others include exploring alternative feeds for cattle, reducing food waste, and reducing meat and dairy production.

HeraldScotland: Professor Rainer Roehe from Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) is leading the researchProfessor Rainer Roehe from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is leading the research (Image: SRUC)

Switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet is also seen as a way to reduce methane emissions from cattle.

The new research involved measuring methane from cattle bred for low methane emissions for their rumen microbial composition in specially designed ventilation chambers at SRUC’s ‘GreenCow’ facility.

Other work at the facility includes research into new feed additives with antimethanogenic properties, which it is hoped could counteract the cattle’s ‘wind problem’.

Chambers at the SRUC were also used to analyze methane concentrations in sheep to find out which of their genetics and diets are causing the highest levels of emissions.

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An estimated 1.2 billion sheep in the world produce about seven million tons of methane into the atmosphere.

Prof Roehe said: “Methane is produced in the rumen to get rid of excess hydrogen that would harm the animal – so it is very important that this excess hydrogen is not produced in the first place.”

“We found that some animals only emit half the emissions compared to others despite being fed the same diet and eating the same amount of food.

“They have lower methane emissions because they have inherited genetics that make the rumen microbe more efficient and so produce less excess hydrogen.”

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the “rear end” of cattle that is the biggest problem.

“Methane is a by-product of the fermentation process and is exhaled by the animal – about 92% of methane emissions are through the mouth and nose.”

The project is now looking at the use of rumen microbiome-driven breeding in different breeds of cattle. It involves taking semen from bulls found to inherit low methane emissions to inseminate cows to produce offspring with the desired, less windy trait.

HeraldScotland: Scotland-based researchers are investigating how to drastically reduce harmful methane emissions from windy cattleScotland-based researchers are investigating how to drastically reduce harmful methane emissions from windy cattle (Image: Newsquest)

It is estimated that the process could halve methane emissions within ten years.

The new research is being conducted with industrial partner Genus. Mark Smith, EMEA Beef Director at Genus said: “Farmers are under pressure to carry out carbon audits and make progress in reducing their carbon footprint.

“Breeding animals with lower methane emissions means a lower carbon footprint, and the change is permanent and cumulative across generations.

“Using a feed additive that suppresses methane — like seaweed — is not permanent, but it does result in a permanent change.”

He added that the selection process should also improve the animals’ overall health by producing offspring with healthier rumen systems, fewer problems with excess hydrogen and more efficient feed conversion.

“We know that a good gut has good health benefits in humans, and the same is true for cattle.”

The project is one of four innovative farming projects aimed at tackling climate issues currently pending at SRUC, which have just received significant funding through Defra’s Farming Innovation Programme, provided by Innovate UK.

MI:RNA Ltd, in collaboration with SRUC reader Spiridoula Athanasiadou, received funding for its Johne’s disease identification project.

The project combines a unique biomarker testing technology with artificial intelligence (AI) to help detect early-stage Johne’s disease in cattle, resulting in significant reductions in milk yield and weight loss, as well as an increase in greenhouse gas production in affected animals.

Other projects receiving new funding include a project led by Aquanzo in collaboration with SRUC professor Jos Houdijk to develop farmed sea proteins for poultry feed.

While Synergy Farm Health received funding for its bovine tuberculosis (bTB) antibody testing project.

Eileen Wall, Research Director at SRUC, said: *In tackling the complex and pressing issue of climate change, it is paramount that we work in partnership with the agribusiness. Our farmers are not only the custodians of the land, but also important partners in the development and implementation of solutions that support sustainable food production and environmental protection.

“By combining science with the invaluable knowledge and experience of our agribusiness, we can accelerate our efforts to combat climate change and strengthen the resilience of our agricultural sector.”

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