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Breeding Cows That Burp Less

June 23, 2009

In an effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions, scientists in Canada are attempting to breed cows that will burp less.

Stephen Moore, professor of agricultural, food and nutritional science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is leading a team of scientists with the goal of pinpointing specific genes that account for a cow’s burps. His study is found in the Journal of Animal Science.

Cows are a major producer of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with the 20 times the polluting strength of carbon dioxide. Most of their methane production comes from burping.

“We are working on producing diagnostic markers for efficient animals. We are looking at the next generation of technologies that will enable us to determine the genetics of an animal through a blood test or testing some hairs that you might pluck from the animal,” Moore told Reuters.

Moore has completed tests to breed animals that produce 25 percent less methane than common breeds.

Other work is already underway in trying to make livestock more efficient. Ranchers are feeding cattle foods that are higher in energy and edible oils, resulting in less fermentation within the stomach of grazing cattle.

Moore told Reuters that another method could include breeding cattle that grow faster. This would allow ranchers to get cattle to market quicker, leaving less time for grazing and emitting methane.

Ranchers in Alberta that use high quality feed and get their cattle to market more quickly have the opportunity to earn carbon credits for each head of cattle raised.

“If every U.S. dairy farmer reduced emissions by 12 percent it would be equal to about half a million cars being taken off the road,” Nancy Hirshberg, vice president of the department of natural resources at Stonyfield Farm, told Reuters.

Stonyfield is a maker of organic yogurt that has reduced emissions from its cows by an average of 12 percent using a feed mix consisting of alfalfa, flax or hemp in some of its livestock.

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