Feed supplement greatly reduces dairy cow methane emissions

Feed supplement greatly reduces dairy cow methane emissions
Holsteins graze on the Penn State campus. Credit: Penn State

A supplement added to the feed of high-producing dairy cows reduced methane emissions by 30 percent and could have ramifications for global climate change, according to an international team of researchers.

In addition, over the course of the 12-week study conducted at Penn State's dairy barns, cows that consumed a feed regimen supplemented by the novel inhibitor 3-nitrooxypropanol—or 3NOP—gained 80 percent more body weight than cows in a control group. Significantly, feed intake, fiber digestibility and milk production by cows that consumed the supplement did not decrease.

The findings are noteworthy because methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that methane from livestock makes up 25 percent of the total methane emissions in the

United States. Globally, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture emits 44 percent of the methane produced by human activity. Fermentation in the rumen—one of the four stomach chambers of livestock such as cattle, sheep and goats—generates the methane, as a result of microorganisms that aid in the process of digestion. The animals must expel the gas to survive. The 3NOP supplement blocks an enzyme necessary to catalyze the last step of methane creation by the microbes in the rumen.

It was important to conduct the study under industry-relevant conditions, said lead researcher Alexander Hristov, professor of dairy nutrition. The researchers published their results in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Feed supplement greatly reduces dairy cow methane emissions
These are Holstein cows being tested for methane production. Credit: Penn State

"We tested methane-mitigation compounds using animals with similar productivity to those on commercial farms because the nutrient requirements of high-producing dairy cows are much greater than those of nonlactating or low-producing cows," he explained.

"Any reduction in feed intake caused by a methane-mitigation compound or practice would likely result in decreased productivity—which may not be evident in low- producing cows."

Methane expulsion through burping represents a net loss of feed energy for livestock, Hristov noted, adding that a high-producing dairy cow typically emits 450 to 550 grams per day of ruminal gas produced by fermentation. The spared methane energy was used partially for tissue synthesis, which led to a greater body weight gain by the inhibitor-treated cows.

The 48 Holsteins in the study received varying amounts of the inhibitor in their feed and were observed at regular daily intervals over three months. Their were measured when the cows put their heads into feeding chambers that had atmospheric measurement sensors, and also through nostril tubes attached to canisters on their backs.

In recent years animal scientists have tested a number of chemical compounds to inhibit in ruminants, and one even achieved a 60 percent reduction, Hristov said. However, the viability of that and other compounds as mitigation agents has been discounted due to concerns about animal health, food safety or environmental impact.

The 3NOP compound, developed by DSM Nutritional Products, a Dutch company that is one of the world's leading suppliers of feed additives, seems to be safe and effective, Hristov said.

If approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and adopted by the agricultural industry, this methane inhibitor could have a significant impact on from the livestock sector, Hristov suggested. But producers will have to have an incentive to use the feed additive.

"It is going to cost money for dairy producers to put this into practice, and if they don't see a benefit from it, they are not going to do it," he said.

"The thing that is critical is body gain— go through phases, and they lose a lot of weight when they calf. They don't eat enough, and they produce a lot of milk and lose weight, so if we can cut down the energy loss with the inhibitor, the animals will gain more and recover more quickly. Further, they may produce more milk in early lactation and have improved reproduction. It's something that will convince producers to use it."


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Aug 04, 2015
While that's technically good news, the only reason cows are a problem is because of their numbers due to humans meat consumption. We'd be better off just eating much less meat and, considering the health problems caused by excess beef consumption, it would be better for our health anyway.

Aug 04, 2015
Haven't we exploited and abused these animals enough?

Aug 04, 2015
Get between me and my steaks and hamburgers and we are going to have a problem.

Aug 04, 2015
Get between me and my steaks and hamburgers and we are going to have a problem.

I get you. I eat meat, not cattle though, and so I admit, looking at the light reflecting off that second cattle's eye brings me to shame and a realization. We shut our eyes, on these experimentations with our food animals, to our own peril.

Aug 05, 2015
...reduced methane emissions by 30 percent and could have ramifications for global climate change...

Or it could not. Let's do the math. According to Obama's just released Clean Power Plan, methane emissions account for 25% of warming. And according to the EPA, which devised the plan, implementing it would reduce warming over the next 85 years by 0.018 C.

Lemme see...back of the napkin math...30% of 25% of 25% of 0.018 C is...0.3 times 0.25 times 0.25 times 0.018 C equals...wait for it...0.0003375 C.

Yes, that 3.375 ten thousandths of a degree C will certainly have a significant impact on global warming. Let's do it. Hopefully it will cost a lot so we can really feel like we're making a difference even though we're not.

Aug 05, 2015
Get between me and my steaks and hamburgers and we are going to have a problem.

I get you. I eat meat, not cattle though, and so I admit, looking at the light reflecting off that second cattle's eye brings me to shame and a realization. We shut our eyes, on these experimentations with our food animals, to our own peril.


The "Organic" food movement will likely prevent this. Those consumers aren't going to want to drink GMO milk, nor eat GMO hamburger.

Genetic tinkering with food supplies is already biting us in the ass by spreading diabetes and neuropathy disorders, and its only a matter of time before some big screw-up swallows us whole.

Aug 05, 2015
I read these comments as someone whose local friends are dairy cow farmers, who lived across a cattle farm during calving, and as someone who actually does see cattle on a regular basis.

The discussion here is about changing the feed for a DAIRY COW, which coincidentally has a side effect of reducing methane emissions. They were not adjusting the genetics of the cow. Reiterating: this is not about "better" hamburger.

The researchers were not out to "save the world." They were doing this primarily to improve the health of cattle.

Yet many here thought it was about global warming. When you see everything through those tinted points of view, it all looks like something to do with your cause. It's not. It never was.

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