What We Feed Cows Could Be a Significant Key To Fighting Climate Change

Reducing methane emissions is critical to cooling the climate. Growing better cattle feed can help us get there

Cows in a farm
SGr/stock.adobe.com

In the world of greenhouse gasses, CO2 gets all the attention.

Many have known for decades that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a major contributor to climate change and leaders across industries have made efforts to reduce it, but new research is showing methane — a lesser talked about gas — could be another key to substantially reducing the impacts of climate change.

Methane is responsible for around 25% of global heating and warms the atmosphere 80 times more than CO2. Sharply cutting methane emissions could help the effort to stave off the worst of climate change. Compared to CO2, methane degrades relatively quickly in the atmosphere — breaking down in about a decade while carbon dioxide hangs around for centuries. That means a steep decline in methane emissions now could keep the U.S. under the Paris target while leaders in methane-producing industries develop long-term strategies to reduce carbon dioxide. The potential for methane reduction is so great, it was a major talking point at Cop26, after which more than 100 countries signed a pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

The question is: how to do it?

Clean Feed For Cattle

As a leader of an ag tech firm, I'm close to the problem — and potential solutions — for tackling emissions from livestock. While many cost-effective solutions exist for reducing methane emissions from fossil fuels, curtailing emissions from livestock has historically been a bigger challenge. The livestock industry is responsible for roughly 30% of human-caused methane emissions, most of which are produced through the natural process of cattle simply digesting their food.

This is part of the reason plant-based foods have risen in popularity as a form of climate action. But changing human diets on a global scale is unlikely to happen; a more realistic, and effective, approach is to change what is fed to the animals that produce the world's food. Put simply: plant-based foods convert energy to protein, which is great — that's exactly what cows are doing, and they're quite efficient at it. If you can manage their feed and carbon footprint, animal protein can be produced more sustainably.

The last few years have seen a spate of new technologies emerge to reduce methane emissions from cattle. Additives to cattle feed such as seaweed, essential oils and enzyme inhibitors can reduce the production of methane in the digestion process, but they also come with potential side effects like lower yield or milk fat content from dairy cows.

Meanwhile, digester systems on farms can capture methane from cattle waste and convert it to energy, but that doesn't address the majority (80%) of methane that comes from the other end. Making cow burps climate-friendly is one way to reduce the industry's methane emissions and it comes down to feeding cows nutritious food that's easier to digest.

Feeding cattle sprouted grain harvested just before the plant moves into photosynthesis, for instance, has in one study produced by my company, been shown to reduce methane from dairy cows by up to 24% and beef cattle by 48%. How? Compared to other feedstuffs, including forages and grain, sprouted grains provide a high amount of energy in the form of simple easy-to-digest carbohydrate sources (i.e., sugar and glucose). More easily digested feed means cows can convert more of that plant energy into protein and lose less energy through the production of methane.

To get this result, however, feed needs to be grown in optimal conditions and harvested at a precise moment in the growth cycle. One way to do this by growing it indoors.

Sustainable Farming, Profitable Future

Indoor growing systems, similar to those used to produce nutrient-dense salad greens for human consumption, can also yield the cattle feed needed to help us reach our climate goals.

Growing indoors doesn't just cut methane emissions, it also eliminates the need for pesticides and fertilizer and uses a fraction of the water needed for conventional agriculture. It insulates farmers from wildly fluctuating feed costs caused by unpredictable weather patterns, floods and drought, ensuring cattle have access to nutrient-dense, fresh feed year-round.

But it also opens new revenue streams for farmers who increasingly struggle to turn a profit. Global food companies like McDonald's and Nestlé are facing pressure to reduce their environmental footprints — and provide proof to governments and consumers alike. Low-methane meat and dairy products may even command a premium from consumers willing to pay a little extra at the grocery store, just as organic and fair trade products do today.

Farmers and ranchers who succeed in curbing methane emissions may also benefit from emerging carbon markets, which allow them to sell offsets or receive subsidies. In the same study from my company, results showed using certain types of indoor-grown feed could prevent up to 2.3 tons of methane production annually per animal. That adds up, both environmentally and financially.

Yet, there are roadblocks to overcome before indoor-grown cattle feed can become widespread enough to make a significant dent in global methane emissions from cattle. Indoor farms and industrial growth chambers require capital outlay from farmers who often already operate with tight margins. Traditional funding sources, such as banks, are hesitant to approve loans for new technologies as they might for more traditional — and familiar — pieces of farm equipment. By the same token, government subsidies and financial aid programs aimed at the agriculture sector have been slow to include new technologies in their scope.

Meanwhile, indoor farming can be energy-intensive. While the industry is making progress on reducing energy consumption and utilizing renewable energy sources, this too puts an added capital cost on farmers who may feel they can't afford to make the switch. With time, however, these costs can come down and more farmers may realize the benefits — financial and environmental — of optimizing cattle feed.

With signs of climate change all around us, it's easy to become overwhelmed, but there is hope. Just as indoor ag tech is making it possible for farmers to feed our growing population using less land and water, the same technology can be applied to feed the Earth's billion cows locally and sustainably.

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