There’s pressure on the beef industry to be more sustainable, and some of that pressure falls on scientists like Karen Beauchemin.
The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada ruminant nutritionist and her team at the Lethbridge, Alta. research station are looking for ways to reduce enteric methane — gas produced when digesting feed — from beef cattle.
One area of promise is an experimental compound that inhibits methane.
Why it matters: It’s estimated agriculture generates about eight per cent of greenhouse gases in Canada, with two-thirds of that coming from livestock production, including manure and enteric methane.
“Essentially, it’s a feed additive when you feed it to cows,” said Beauchemin. “It blocks the biochemical formation of methane in the rumen and it reduces methane from about 30 to 50 per cent depending on the type of diet, the type of animals, and the dose.”
The compound, known as 3NOP (short for nitrooxypropanol), is not currently available for sale in Canada, but studies have found it reduces methane emission but not performance.
“Producers want to maintain the growth of their animals,” she said. “We’ve looked at the impact on animal performance — what effect it has on intake and growth. We found that there was no effect on animal gain, but animals were more efficient.”
Earlier studies have found cattle can achieve the same gain with three to five per cent less feed and Beauchemin’s team is now running a large-scale study at a commercial feedlot in Alberta. It is examining feed corn, barley and high-forage backgrounding diets with and without the compound.
“We’re looking at the effects on methane, animal performance, and carcass characteristics,” she said.
The feedlot study began in December and will run through the fall.
“It will take about a year, because we have to go through a lot of different cattle and a lot of different diets,” she said. “The study is being run with the approval of Health Canada since this is an experimental compound.
“Enteric methane is the big one. That’s why we’re focused on that one,” she said.
However, beef cattle are unique, since they are maintained on a forage-based diet and consume a lot of high-fibre waste from the food industry.
“They don’t compete directly with grain that would be fed to humans or other livestock,” she said. “Beef cattle have an important role in keeping the land healthy. So the question we’ve been asking is, ‘Can we have beef cattle in Canada that produce less methane?’
“That’s very important. If you look at methane production from producing meat, methane is about half of the greenhouse gas emissions.”
Over the past 30 years, Canadian producers have done a lot to increase production efficiency, but there was also a 15 per cent reduction in the carbon footprint from beef production from 1981 to 2011.
“Anything a producer does to improve performance lowers the carbon footprint,” said Beauchemin. “We have better reproductive performance, better health, better weaning weight, and heavier carcass weights at slaughter.
“All of those management factors have reduced the carbon footprint of beef. Our carbon footprint of beef is one of the lowest globally. We’re already at a high standard, but there’s always room for improvement.”
The research group has looked at other feed additives, but has learned that sometimes reducing the methane emissions of cattle isn’t sustainable over a long period. In a recent experiment, they found feeding wheat to cattle instead of corn or barley greatly reduces emissions, but micro-organisms in the animal’s rumen quickly adapt.
“You can have a short-term reduction of three to five weeks, but when you look at it in eight to 12 weeks, in many of those animals, the methane will rebound.”
One of the challenges with reducing methane is finding a method that lasts for a long time.
“We’ve also found that if you add fat to a diet, any source of fat will reduce methane emission and that it is reduced over a long period of time,” she said.