|Burping cows have become the comic relief of the global warming debate, but livestock emissions are no laughing matter. Every year, the world’s 1.2 billion ruminants produce 80 million tonnes of methane, or 28 per cent of global methane emissions. Just one grazing dairy cow belches around 600 litres per day. Methane is a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Home to 29 million cows, Australia is the world’s second-largest beef exporter and has a huge dairy industry. The country has one of the highest per capita carbon emission levels, and with three million tonnes of methane released by livestock each year, red meat is not looking so green.
But in a breakthrough hailed by environmentalists and agriculturalists, scientists at Victoria’s Department of Primary Industries labs have discovered an unusual feed supplement that is leading many to raise a glass in celebration. By feeding cows grape marc - the skin, sticks and seeds left over from commercial red wine pressing – their methane emissions can be cut by around 20 per cent, the equivalent of taking 200,000 cars off the road. Not only does the discovery mean a considerably reduced eco-footprint for meat eaters and livestock producers, but it is a boon to Australia’s enormous wine industry (the country is the world’s fourth-largest wine exporter), turning a waste product into a saleable and environmentally sound commodity.
A team led by senior dairy researcher Dr Peter Moate has been testing how feeding grazing cows various different products affects their methane emissions, including brewers’ grains, cold-pressed canola meal, cottonseed meal, and hominy meal. Results were modest but held promise – one that was fulfilled when they experimented with grape marc. The supplement produced a 20 per cent cut in methane emissions – the largest reduction through a feed product ever discovered. What is more, the research suggests that the grape marc supplement could boost milk production by five per cent. About 200,000 tonnes of marc is produced by the wine industry each year in Australia, the majority of which would otherwise be left to rot – adding dangerous levels of CO2 to the atmosphere itself.
Dr Moate has high hopes for the future. His team is testing a variety of feed supplements and novel management practices, and his goal is to develop a technique which could reduce methane emissions from cattle by up to 50 per cent. He is also conducting genomic studies on the animals with the objective of identifying a DNA marker for low methane emitting cows.
Tamara Sheward heads to the heart of Victoria’s lush dairy belt to meet Dr Peter Moate and young heffer Mona, who has been fitted with a special yoke to monitor how the new grape marc diet is affecting her methane emissions.
Research sheds new light on methane emissions from the northern beef herd
New CSIRO research indicates that the amount of methane emitted from cattle fed on tropical grasses in northern Australia is up to 30 per cent less than figures currently used to calculate the northern cattle industry’s contribution to Australia’s greenhouse gas accounts.
- 27 May 2011
Speaking at today’s Lansdown Field Day near Townsville, Queensland, CSIRO research leader Dr Ed Charmley said the findings would help to refine the nation’s greenhouse gas accounting.
“Measurements from cattle in CSIRO’s custom-built respiration chambers show that Brahman cattle fed a wide range of tropical grasses emit up to 30 per cent less methane than previously determined.
“While you always have to be cautious in extending lab data to the field and across an industry, we have been able to cross-check our findings with methane detecting laser systems used in the field.
“These findings, while not changing the actual emissions, could have significant implications for calculating the emission footprint of the northern cattle industry and also for Australia’s greenhouse gas accounts.
“Methods used to determine these national greenhouse gas accounts are regularly reviewed and if the new data are confirmed via this review process, future accounts will be adjusted to reflect the lower emissions for the northern beef herd,” Dr Charmley said.
With about half of the nation’s beef herd located in northern Australia, current greenhouse gas accounts indicate that methane from the northern cattle industry contributes about 4.5 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
As a by-product of digesting plants, ruminant livestock such as sheep and cattle produce methane and, of those, beef cattle produce the most – about 200 grams a day, or about 1.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per animal every year.
“CSIRO research also shows that northern cattle fed on a diet of predominantly Leucaena, a legume tree, emit less methane than cattle grazing on tropical grasses,” Dr Charmley said.
“What this nutrition research is showing is that there can be win-win scenarios for the industry and the environment if we can redirect the breakdown of plant material in a way that reduces the amount of methane produced while improving the amount of energy or weight gain that animals get from their feed.
“We are addressing cattle methane emissions from several angles – from examining the gut microbes that produce methane from ingested pasture and alternative diets, to a landscape focus on northern Australia’s extensive grazing systems using state-of-the-art technologies, such as lasers and wireless sensor networks, to measure and model cattle methane emissions under tropical conditions.”
The Lansdown Research Station is a key part of CSIRO’s broader research programs on livestock production and emissions reduction in agriculture.
Lansdown Research Station is funded by the Australian Government’s Climate Change Research Program, Meat & Livestock Australia and CSIRO and is one of five national research hubs and demonstration sites for practical methane management on-farm.
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Reducing livestock methane emissions
CSIRO is undertaking an extensive research program focused on developing practical solutions for significantly reducing methane emissions from livestock such as sheep and cattle.
- 26 May 2011 | Updated 14 October 2011
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Ruminants such as sheep and cattle produce methane as a by-product of digesting plant material in the rumen – one of the four chambers of their stomach. This methane is released from the gut by belching.
In Australia, methane emissions from ruminants are estimated to account for approximately 10 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions (National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, May 2010).
Incorporating research at the cellular, animal, and landscape levels, CSIRO is undertaking three related projects that aim to reduce livestock methane emissions per unit of product:
- Microbiological research to understand methane production in the rumen and to develop biological methods for reducing this methane production.
Systems-based research to understand management and dietary factors that affect methane emissions from cattle in northern Australia.
Investigation of plant foods (forage) that may reduce methane production in ruminants and the potential incorporation of these plants into Australian livestock production systems.
These research projects are carried out through CSIRO Livestock Industries Division and the Sustainable Agriculture Flagship.
Project funders include:
Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency
Australian Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
Meat & Livestock Australia
Cooperative Research Centre for Beef Genetic Technologies.
CSIRO has several national and international collaborators on this research, including:
The University of Western Australia
Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, New Zealand
AgResearch, New Zealand
United States Department of Energy, USA
Ohio State University, USA
National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science, Japan
National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), France.
Wine waste cuts bovine belch gas
By Keva Gocher
Research is showing that recycled wine grape waste is a cheap feed source for livestock, with the added benefit of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Methane gas has been cut by 20 per cent in belching bovines that are fed the skins and seeds of grape marc, in tests at a Victorian DPI research station.
Dr Peter Moate says he’s delighted with the initial results.
He says five cows switching to eating grape marc equates to one less polluting car on Australian roads.
“A dairy cow is approximately equivalent to a family motor car’s greenhouse gas emissions, and we have been able to reduce the emission by about 20 per cent, so that is a substantial decrease,” he said.
“We are hoping that with other means of reducing methane from ruminants, we might be able to reduce their methane emissions more than 50 per cent.”