Methane from Animal Agriculture: Being Open Minded With New Approaches

Growing up and working in and around agriculture, I’ve heard debates and discussions that pit those with environmental concerns squarely at odds with those in production agriculture. In the era of the internet and social media, this squabbling has only increased.

This conflict is misguided and tends to shut down communication on what are very important issues. These two groups have more in common than is often admitted. I don’t know anyone who wants polluted water and a scarcity of food as clear examples.
Recently, the amount of methane emitted from production agriculture, and in particular, ruminant animals, was discussed. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (more so than the typically-discussed carbon dioxide) that is getting more attention within the issue of human-induced climate change. Ruminants have a microbial fermentation vat, called the rumen, and emit a lot of methane with their normal digestive functions. And, there are a lot of cows on Earth.
This is where the open mindedness comes in. Regardless of your thoughts on the validity or scale of human effects on the global climate, methane emission from cattle is clearly one thing – lost production. Methane is a loss of dietary energy that would otherwise be used for productive purposes, such as increased milk production. Strategies that increase animal production and reduce methane often go together.

For example, feeding a ration with higher digestible carbohydrates, as in grains, will reduce methane production. Beef cattle will typically experience greater rates of gain and efficiency on these diets. The trouble with this approach, especially for highly-productive lactating dairy cattle, is that acidosis of the rumen can develop, causing performance to suffer. So, other options are needed.

Increasing dietary fat will also result in reduced methane production. As I’ve shown here before, a higher-quality ingredient, such as extruded/pressed (ExPress®) soy meal, enhance rumen health and milk production while adding more fat to the diet. The addition of this soy oil (fat), as residual oil in the ExPress® meal, to the diet should help reduce methane. Alternatively, an excellent source of certain fatty acids, like those found in flax, would reduce methane production even further while potentially creating a product with with improved nutrient content.

I’ve published blogs here about strategies for reducing waste and pollution that often don’t stay on the farm (see here and here). These are important challenges, and should be turned into opportunities that can used to improve the productivity of your operation. Most importantly, there are changes that you can choose to make by being open minded enough to listen.