Glacier FarmMedia – A new feed additive can reduce methane emissions in beef and dairy cattle, but unfortunately, it’s not available in North America yet and won’t be for some time.
The feed additive, called 3-nitrooxypropanol (or 3-NOP for short), is a methane-inhibiting compound created by Dutch company DSM Nutritional Products.
“It’s quite well researched in dairy and beef cattle. We’re seeing about a 30 per cent reduction in methane emissions,” said Karen Beauchemin, an expert in ruminant nutrition and the environment who works at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge station.
But while 3-NOP has been extensively studied and peer reviewed, there’s still a long regulatory road to be travelled before it’s available here. The product, which has the brand name Bovaer, is expected to be approved for use in Europe later this year or in 2022. It would then take another three to five years before gaining Canadian regulatory approval.
And then there’s the question of whether livestock producers would buy it as it’s not your typical feed supplement.
“Most feed additives that we provide to cattle are to enhance production efficiency and digestion in the animal, whereas this product was specifically designed to reduce methane emissions as a way to reduce the carbon footprint of meat and milk,” said Beauchemin.
And given growing concerns about methane emissions from cattle, that could be a strong selling point.
It’s also why researchers at Ag Canada’s Lethbridge station followed a small study with a much larger one at a southern Alberta commercial feedlot. That project (which ran from 2017 into 2019 and involved more than 15,000 head of cattle) measured methane emissions from different diets.
One was a backgrounding diet higher in silage and fibre.
“It’s for animals just entering the feedlot that are lighter weight and younger,” said Beauchemin. “They’re fed a higher-forage diet, which has higher methane emissions.”
The researchers also used a corn diet (only used in Western Canada when corn prices are low) and a barley finishing diet (the standard one used in feedlots here).
“What we found at the commercial scale was very much in line with our findings at the research pens at the Lethbridge research centre,” she said. “The methane reduction was less in the backgrounding diet. When animals are fed a high-forage diet, it’s harder to reduce the methane emissions, but on average, we were seeing about a 25 per cent decrease in methane in the backgrounding.”
In the finishing diets, the researchers found it reduced methane emissions by a minimum of 45 per cent and, in some cases, by nearly 80 per cent. They also looked at the impact on animal productivity, health, and carcass quality.
“That’s very important in terms of figuring out the economics of using a compound such as 3-NOP,” said Beauchemin.
But there were no negative impacts on animal performance or carcass quality when 3-NOP was given at the right dose. In fact, there were small improvements in feed efficiency.
“The improvement of the feed-to-gain ratio was quite small — like a two per cent improvement, which is still good,” she said.
Feedlots would need to figure out how to use the additive in their feeding regime but dairy producers would have no problem as their cows are fed a total mixed ration 365 days a year, she added.
The Dutch additive is just one contender in the quest to reduce burping by cows.
One candidate that has received a lot of attention in the past year is a type of seaweed that grows in the tropics. It has been found to cut emissions by up to 80 per cent but procuring enough of the seaweed and getting it to farms and ranches far from oceans looks to be a very expensive proposition.
Then there is lemongrass, which got the wrong sort of attention last year when Burger King rolled out an ad campaign touting its merits. Experts quickly debunked the claim, saying the research evidence was both limited and unconvincing.
The average ruminant produces 250 to 500 litres of methane a day and globally that adds up to the equivalent of 3.1 giga-tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere annually. This is based on estimates that methane is 28 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. But it also doesn’t persist as long in the atmosphere.
“Methane, while initially having a stronger global warming impact than carbon dioxide for the first few years after it is released into the atmosphere, is relatively short lived, with an atmospheric lifetime of approximately 12 years,” says the website of the Beef Cattle Research Council. “Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, lasts in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and continues to accumulate.”
But that’s also an argument for reducing methane emitted by cows, many say.
“As a tool to fight climate change, this has the power to deliver quick and immediate wins for the planet,” DSM states on its web page touting its feed additive.
– With staff files
Alexis Kienlen is a reporter for the Alberta Farmer Express. Her article appeared in the Aug. 23, 2021 issue.