New Zealand scientists working to cut down cows and sheep burping

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How do you stop a cow from burping?

It might sound like the start of a joke, but this is a serious matter for New Zealand scientists.

And the answer could help reduce climate change.

“At a farm level, we’ve got to do our bit to help save the planet,” says Aidan Bichan, dairy farmer, Kaiwaiwai Dairies.

Scientists are working on how to stop cows and other farm animals from belching out so much methane, a gas which doesn’t last as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but is 25 times more potent when it comes to global warming.

“Methane is a really gnarly challenge on its own,” says Bichan.

“We think it’s actually a package of genetics, of improved efficiency – increasing our production per cow – possibly milking a few less cows to do the same production level, and putting less feed into our system.”

Because cows can’t readily digest the grass they eat, they ferment it first in multiple stomach compartments, or rumen, a process which releases huge amounts of gas.

Among the most promising solutions are selective breeding, genetically modified food, methane inhibitors, and a potential game-changer, a vaccine.

In New Zealand, the research has taken on a new urgency: about half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions come from farms, compared to less than 10 percent in the U.S.

New Zealand’s 5 million people are outnumbered by 26 million sheep and 10 million cattle.

As part of a push to become carbon neutral, New Zealand’s government plans to reduce methane emissions from farm animals by up to 47 percent by 2050, notably by taxing farmers for animal burps, a world-first move.

Much of the research is taking place at a Palmerston North campus which some have jokingly taken to calling Gumboot Valley, in a nod to Silicon Valley.

At one greenhouse on the campus, scientists are developing genetically modified ryegrass and white clover that the animals predominantly eat.

With the clover, scientists have found a way to increase tannins, which helps block methane production.

“What this team has done is they’ve actually identified, through their research, a master switch that switches on condensed tannins in the leaves,” said Linda Johnson, a science group manager at AgResearch, a government-owned company that employs about 900 people.

Laboratory analysis indicates the modified clover reduces methane production by 15 percent to 19 percent, Johnson said.

But the feed program is still some years away from being farm ready.

Scientists have completed controlled tests in the U.S. and are planning a bigger field trial in Australia — but New Zealand has strict rules that ban most genetically modified crops, a regulatory barrier to overcome.

Peter Janssen, principal scientist at AgResearch, has been working on developing a vaccine for the past 15 years and has focused intensively on it for the past five years.

He says it has the potential to reduce the amount of methane belched by cows by 30% or more.

“I certainly believe it’s going to work, because that’s the motivation for doing it. If I thought this wasn’t going to work, I wouldn’t be here doing it. I’d find something else that could work,” he says.

A vaccine would stimulate an animal’s immune system to produce antibodies which would then dampen the output of methane-producing microbes.

One big upside of a vaccine is that it might only need to be administered once in an animal’s lifetime.

Other technologies such as selective breeding, which could reduce methane output by 15 percent, will be rolled out onto sheep farms as early as next year, Janssen says.

A similar program for cows may not be too far behind.