Research into cow burps could cut methane emissions, and budgets

Some cows are more food efficient than others, which means they don't eat as much as other cows their size.

Less food efficient cows produce up to 30 per cent more methane

Scientists are measuring the methane of different cows in an effort to breed for reduced emissions. 1:10

Scientists are finding that some cows are more efficient than others.

At the Lacombe Research Station, heifers take turns sticking their heads into a computerized feeder for a mouthful of pellets.

As they snack, a sampling tube and infrared detector measures the contents of their burps. 

"Essentially what we're doing here is measuring methane emissions of beef cattle under fairly typical and normal production practice," said research scientist John Basarab. 

Greenhouse eruptions

More food-efficient cows are good for the bottom line, according to beef production specialist Karin Schmid. (Andrew Brown/CBC)

The more food efficient cows don't need to eat as much other cows their size.

According to Basarab, less efficient cows produce up to 30 per cent more methane. He said selective breeding could help cut emissions by 10 to 15 per cent over the next couple of decades.

That's good news, as the methane from burps and flatulence accounts for more than half of the greenhouse gases produced by the beef industry in Canada. 

"The carbon footprint of the beef industry is an important public concern," said Basarab. "And of course, if we can get animals that eat less for the same amount of production, it means cost savings."

Big savings

Sorry cow, you're one of the less food-efficient heifers at the Lacombe Research Station. (Andrew Brown/CBC)

Karin Schmid, who works with Alberta Beef Producers, said the environmental benefit of cows eating less comes with a financial one. 

"Feed efficiency has always been really important to beef producers," she said. 

According to Schmid, a five per cent improvement in feed efficiency would save the industry around $80 million per year.

"It has such a big impact on bottom lines and on the environment that it will always be a focus for beef producers and beef industry," she said. 

"And we will continue to invest research dollars into being able to figure out how to pick out those more efficient cows more easily."

Some cows are more efficient than others, according to research scientist John Basarab. (Andrew Brown/CBC )