Great news for cows and Earth: Food additive can squelch the belch

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USA TODAY, 6/10/2003 Fans of science may be relieved to learn that researchers are diligently working to defuse the global atmospheric menace posed by cow burps. Mostly by belching, livestock generate significant amounts of methane, perhaps the most potent of greenhouse gases.

Greenhouse gases from both natural and industrial sources play a key role in global climate change. They are expected to raise average temperatures worldwide a few degrees in this century, according to estimates from a United Nations science panel.

And because there are a lot of cows, more than a billion worldwide, and a single cow can produce more than 14 cubic feet of methane a day, cows contribute to climate change. They account for more than 20% of all methane emissions caused by human activities. (Animal husbandry is categorized as a human activity.)

For farmers, this poses another problem: All that gas represents a waste of cattle feed caused by inefficient digestion. Seeking to lasso both problems, scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are designing a food additive that can reduce cow-generated methane.

A kind of «Beano» for cows, the advance is a compound that blocks methane production, turning the microbes involved in the digestive process in one of the cow’s four stomachs toward the production of nutrients rather than gas.

Test-tube studies suggest that adding the compound would cut the consumption of cattle feed by at least 10% as less digestive energy goes into making gas.

Other scientists are tackling cow methane in creative ways. As humorist Dave Barry noted last year while puzzling wryly over the merits of mixing species, Australian researchers have proposed feeding methane-reducing Kangaroo stomach microbes to cows.

Federal grants support other studies on ways to adjust feed to reduce methane. And New Zealand researchers have looked at feeding methane-reducing prairie grass to sheep, which also produce the gas.

Ragsdale’s team is well known for past microbe studies, adds Breznak, and if his research pays off, the result will be more nutritious feedings and «less greenhouse gas emission to boot».