Belching is bad for the environment—cow belching, that is. Bovine burps and other types of cow flatulence (the umbrella name for gassiness) produce methane. Lots of it. The situation has animal researchers working overtime to make livestock less windy and more climate-friendly.
Methane is a chemical compound occurring in natural gas. Methane exists in the ground and in fermenting waste. Landfills, rice fields, and marshes also generate methane. Animals produce methane. Cows are some of the biggest methane makers. Every time they burp, pass gas, or generate manure, they emit methane, making dairy farms and other livestock operations major sources of the gas.
Methane traps heat in the atmosphere—even more heat than carbon dioxide, the air-quality villain people hear the most about.
Not everyone agrees that methane-producing cattle are a problem for Earth. After all, God knew what He was doing on Day 6 of Creation. (Genesis 1:24-31) He purposefully made cows with four stomachs, teeth on just the bottom jaw, and almost 360-degree vision.
God also made cows to produce between 10-45 gallons of saliva per day (yuck!) and about twice that much methane. (Whoa.) Scientists in Australia say the average cow emits up to 80 gallons daily. That makes cows (and other ruminants like deer and sheep) some of the biggest producers of methane on the planet.
For years, scientists have tried to make cattle less gassy. They’ve tinkered with the microbes in cows’ guts. Researchers in Argentina even invented a cow-backpack. The pack captured gas coming from the bovines’ mouths and intestines. Researchers claimed the trapped methane could power stoves, lights, and refrigerators.
University of California researchers are trying something less burdensome and bizarre. They’re adding seaweed to cattle feed. They hope the algae additive will reduce methane emissions. Instead of a spoonful of sugar to make this methane medicine go down, they use molasses to cover up the salty seaweed taste.
Bingo! Algae-munching Holsteins are more than 30% less gassy than those that skipped the deep-sea mix-in.
“I was extremely surprised when I saw the results,” says Ermias Kebreab, the scientist who led the study. “I wasn’t expecting it to be that dramatic with a small amount of seaweed.”
Starting in October, Kebreab’s team will experiment further. Their research will focus on seaweed’s effectiveness and safety for cattle. And while they’re experimenting, let’s hope they make sure our milk doesn’t start tasting like a sushi wrapper!