Saturday, June 06, 2009

Reducing Methane Emissions in Cows with Natural Feed

That helping of organic yogurt I had for breakfast may be as good for the planet as it is for my body. The New York Times reports that organic dairy farmers in Vermont are experimenting with the feed they provide to their cows:
Since January, cows at 15 farms across Vermont have had their grain feed adjusted to include more plants like alfalfa and flaxseed — substances that, unlike corn or soy, mimic the spring grasses that the animals evolved long ago to eat.
As of the last reading in mid-May, the methane output of Mr. Choiniere’s herd had dropped 18 percent. Meanwhile, milk production has held its own.
The program was initiated by Stonyfield Farm, the yogurt manufacturer, at the Vermont farms that supply it with organic milk. Mr. Choiniere, a third-generation dairy herder who went organic in 2003, said he had sensed that the outcome would be good even before he got the results.
“They are healthier,” he said of his cows. “Their coats are shinier, and the breath is sweet.”
Sweetening cow breath is a matter of some urgency, climate scientists say. Cows have digestive bacteria in their stomachs that cause them to belch methane, the second-most-significant heat-trapping emission associated with global warming after carbon dioxide. Although it is far less common in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it has 20 times the heat-trapping ability.
Cows were around for a long time before farmers started tinkering with their feed. One thing researchers have found is that the natural grasses have higher concentrations of Omega-3 fatty acids, a familiar term to health conscious foodies.
Industrial agriculture has developed around the technologies of adding more and more additives, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics to our food chain. The idea that we can get equal production—and less methane—simply by letting cows eat what they evolved to eat still seems a little strange. But in this case it seems to be working.


Blogger Virginia said...

After reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma last year, we made a serious effort to switch exclusively to pastured animal products, both for the health of the animals and the health of the planet. It does cost more to buy meat from the farmer's market that has been grass finished, but it just means we buy it less often. And by now we've built a relationship with our farmers, have seen their farm and their animals, and feel much better about buying products from them than from a faceless corporation.

10:58 PM, June 17, 2009  

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