Curbing cow belches in the name of climate change mitigation

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Researcher Alex Hristov
Researcher Alex Hristov, distinguished professor of dairy nutrition, with cows in the intestinal methane mitigation study. (Michael Houtz, Penn State photo)

By Jeff Mulhollem

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A Penn State livestock emissions expert has received a grant from the Greener Cattle Initiative to develop actionable options to mitigate enteric, or intestinal, methane emissions from cattle — which are produced via belching.

Alex Hristov, distinguished professor of dairy nutrition, will use the $758,776 award — the first grant issued by the consortium investing in research focused on mitigating enteric methane emissions — to develop new enteric methane inhibitors and delivery methods for them. Hristov’s research group in the College of Agricultural Sciences has been an international leader over the last 15 years in testing feed additives that reduce methane emissions from cattle.

Cows and other ruminant animals produce enteric methane as part of their natural digestive process. This methane is the single largest source of direct greenhouse gases in the beef and dairy sectors, according to the Greener Cattle Initiative. Due to its structure, methane traps more heat in the atmosphere per molecule than carbon dioxide, making it 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is emitted.

Addressing enteric methane emissions is critical to slowing the effects of climate change while also helping the dairy and beef sectors meet their sustainability goals, according to the initiative.

Enteric methane inhibitors are naturally occurring or synthetic compounds that when ingested by cows can limit enteric methane emissions. Hristov is focusing on inhibitors that have already been shown to substantially reduce methane in laboratory tests. The project aims to develop feed additive options that will deliver the greatest mitigation potential while remaining practical for producers.

The Penn State research team is conducting a series of studies to determine the efficacy and feasibility of these inhibitor compounds in cows, Hristov explained. Additionally, they will work to identify and optimize dietary conditions required to maximize enteric methane emissions reductions.

“Our approach involves exploration of microbes and plants as vehicles for delivery of methane inhibitors to the animal,” he said. “Preliminary work showed that novel inhibitor compounds can deliver at least 30% reduction in enteric methane emission at practical application rates. Molecular techniques may be used to enhance inhibitors uptake by fungal strains and investigate plants and microorganisms as delivery mechanisms.”

If successful, he added, the research — conducted at the Penn State Dairy Barns — will offer new, potent enteric methane mitigation options to livestock producers.

Earlier this summer, the world experienced the hottest day on record, jeopardizing human and animal health, our food supplies and more, noted Nikki Dutta, interim scientific program lead for Advanced Animal Systems at the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research.

“A surefire way to slow the impacts of climate change is to reduce the amount of methane cows produce,” Dutta said. “This award aims to provide dairy producers with safe, practical options to reduce enteric methane emissions.”

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy launched the Greener Cattle Initiative in 2021 to convene stakeholders across the dairy and beef value chains to fund research for enteric methane mitigation options that are proven, scalable and affordable for producers. The foundation matched initial program participant contributions with $2.5 million. While the consortium originally sought to award $5 million in research, it has exceeded funding expectations and will make additional grant awards that represent a greater research investment than originally targeted.

(Information provided by Jeff Mulhollem, Penn State.)

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