The case for low methane-emitting cattle

January 13, 2014 by Martin Ince
The case for low methane-emitting cattle

You may think that climate change is being caused by burning oil, coal and gas. But not so fast! The emission of methane from cattle is a surprisingly important factor. Methane from cows—a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide—makes up 20% of greenhouse emissions from agriculture, or about 1% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases. That's according to Phil Garnsworthy, professor of dairy science at the University of Nottingham in the UK. He is also one of the project scientists of an EU-funded research project, called Ruminomics, which is using cutting-edge science to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle.

The key to the project, Garnsworthy says, is that cattle vary by a factor of two or three in the amount of their stomachs produce. It is therefore possible to imagine a dairy herd producing the same volume of milk for lower emissions. In addition, different diets mean that cows can produce the same amount of milk with lower emissions. "It is possible to imagine cutting emissions from cattle by a fifth, using a combination approach in which you would breed from lower-emitting cattle as well as changing their diets," Garnsworthy tells

Different genetic strains of cow emit different amounts of methane. "There are three issues: diet, genetics, and the microbiology of the cow's rumen. We think that animal genetics may well influence their gut microbiology. However, this link has not been proved and we are still in the data collection phase," explains Lorenzo Morelli, director of the faculty of agriculture at the Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Piacenza, Italy, who is a microbiologist and a project scientist.

Until now, the European cattle industry was mainly interested in improving aspects of livestock such as their fertility and their overall shape. But Morelli thinks that the market will soon add lower methane production to the list of desired cattle characteristics. Indeed, a herd that emits less methane is likely to be more productive. "The methane is lost energy that could go into producing milk. So if we can find the right genetic mix, we can find that are less polluting, more productive, and more profitable for the famer," Morelli tells

Independent experts agree that methane emissions could indeed be decreased, mainly through selection. "The problem they are looking at is a [significant] one, but I believe that methane production [from this source] may be reduced by 10% in 10-15 years," comments Yvette de Haas is a senior scientist at the animal sciences group at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. She tells "changed diets will affect methane production directly, but better genotypes alongside better diets will create a positive synergy [for lower ]." Over the longer term, better genotypes will mean lower cost if special diets are not needed.

But Garnsworthy warns that the project, which has two years to run, is not a simple one. "Cows have a rumen as well a stomach," he adds. As a result, "their digestive system is far more complex and hard to understand than ours," he notes. De Haas describes the project approach of gathering rumen samples and looking at the interaction with is a novel one. Over time, it could improve practice with beef as well as milk herds, and with other ruminants such as sheep, deer and goats.

Other experts welcome the project too. What makes it new is its approach to linking genetics and microbiology, according to John McEwan, a senior scientist at AgResearch New Zealand, based at Invernay near Dunedin. He thinks that commercial applications of its findings could begin in 3-5 years if it is scaled up fast enough.

Explore further: Selective breeding and diet changes could produce low methane cows

Related Stories

Beetles modify emissions of greenhouse gases from cow pats

August 22, 2013

Cattle contribute to global warming by burping and farting large amounts of greenhouse gases. Some of the same gases are also emitted from cow pats on pastures. But now researchers from the University of Helsinki have found ...

Traces of cow’s methane emissions in the milk

May 27, 2011

Wageningen University researchers in the Netherlands are able to determine cows' methane emissions using the composition of fatty acids in their milk. This opens up the prospect of a method for reducing methane production ...

Recommended for you

Climate change made Harvey rainfall 15 percent more intense

December 14, 2017

A team of scientists from World Weather Attribution, including researchers from Rice University and other institutions in the United States and Europe, have found that human-caused climate change made the record rainfall ...

East Antarctic Ice Sheet has history of instability

December 13, 2017

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet locks away enough water to raise sea level an estimated 53 meters (174 feet), more than any other ice sheet on the planet. It's also thought to be among the most stable, not gaining or losing ...

Hydraulic fracturing negatively impacts infant health

December 13, 2017

From North Dakota to Ohio to Pennsylvania, hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has transformed small towns into energy powerhouses. While some see the new energy boom as benefiting the local economy and decreasing ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.