European innovations aim to capture waste from cows

There’s a lot of research on feed additives to reduce methane output, but collection devices are starting to show up

European inventors are coming up with what might seem outlandish ways to manage emissions from cattle — collecting the emissions and excretions from both ends.

In late 2020, the United Kingdom-based Zero Emissions Livestock Project (ZELP) announced its efforts to equip cattle with halters harbouring a methane-converting fan and filter system.

Why it matters: Consumer trends in food typically take hold in Europe first, but gradually also make their way to North America.

Then in February, Dutch company Hanskamp nabbed the top innovation award from the biggest livestock farm show in Europe, Eurotier. The new product, accurately named Cow Toilet, features a basin and pumping apparatus attached to an automated feeding stall, which swings into place when the cow enters to eat and gently nudges her into involuntarily urinating.

Both products are aimed at dairy farmers who hope to promote their environmental goodwill to wholesalers and consumers. It is unlikely either product will garner interest in Canada, in the short-term at least.

A researcher at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada says that the work being done globally to understand and reduce dairy’s ecological footprint is grounded in a present reality: Many consumers will only buy dairy products if they can be assured they’re not contributing to environmental decline.

Karen Beauchemin, Lethbridge, Alta.,-based beef cattle specialist, says ruminant livestock serve a niche in a northern, temperate region. They transform grasses into high-quality human food.

But in the process of fermenting those forages, ruminants also produce a lot of methane — a potent greenhouse gas. A big part of Beauchemin’s recent work has been to determine if the same milk and meat can be produced with less methane.

Hanskamp’s Cow Toilet was an innovation winner at the EuroTier trade show. photo: Hanskamp.com

The ZELP product targets methane directly but doesn’t reduce the amount produced. Instead, the company’s goal is to embed a monitor in the halter to detect when the cow’s belches attain a threshold methane level, at which time a fan turns on and directs the higher-methane air into a filter. The unit has been described as “a bit like a catalytic converter,” transforming the methane into carbon dioxide.

All this — plus the solar-powered, rechargeable batteries running the fan — is contained within a halter weighing a tenth of a kilogram. 

“It really, at this point, is experimental,” says Beauchemin.

The photos accompanying media coverage showed cows lounging on a U.K. pack barn wearing odd-looking halters with an extra flap bobbing over their noses. Captions identified that they were non-working prototypes.

Beauchemin also wondered about the efficacy of the ZELP innovation, created by a pair of brothers originally from a ranch-owning family in Argentina. More recently, one brother is studying at the Royal College of Art and the other is an industrial engineer with a Masters degree in Business Administration. Beauchemin noted that the brothers’ approach isn’t to mitigate what’s being emitted but rather convert the methane to carbon dioxide, also a greenhouse gas albeit less potent.

The first media blitz by ZELP, she observed, said a 60 per cent reduction was possible but the more recent promotional campaign, which she suggested was aimed at drumming up investors rather than releasing a working product into the marketplace, estimated a smaller percentage.

The Cow Toilet, by contrast, is beyond the prototype stage and on the market in Europe. So, too, is another ammonia-targeting innovation that also achieved recognition during Eurotier.

French company Bioret was one of several second-place winners in the same competition topped by Hanskamp, thanks to a slightly sloped rubberized flooring system that features rotating belts to separate solid manure from urine.

In both cases, the products separate urine from feces so they can be handled differently, mainly because the smell of ammonia or the effects of livestock-derived ammonia emissions on air quality are of rising importance to the European public.

“Dairy farmers are under an obligation to look for and effectively implement potentials for reducing ammonia emissions,” states the Cow Toilet promotional material. “A high volume of ammonia arises here in a comparatively short period of time, particularly from the 15 to 20 litres of urine that a cow produces each day.”

Those on the urban fringe are among a small percentage of Canadian dairy farmers for whom ammonia is a significant concern. Many, though, have become increasingly aware of the poor public perception caused by their cows’ methane emissions.

“I doubt if very many farmers are waking up every morning and saying, ‘I’m going to produce less methane today’,” Beauchemin said. “But I do think it is coming down to public pressure. And it’s being driven by the large-scale wholesalers. There’s real interest in branding products and saying, ‘these products are ethically produced and sustainably produced’.

“As an industry, they have to think about it.”

In Canada, the AAFC researcher says, all of agriculture accounts for eight to 10 per cent of greenhouse gases produced by human activity. Enteric methane is the largest source, representing about 40 per cent of that. So cows fermenting forages in their rumens, then belching the off-gas, account for between three and four per cent of national emissions.

Growing forages and pasturing cattle is beneficial, though, from a soil health standpoint.

“We want to keep feeding forages to ruminants,” said Beauchemin, who runs a research program in Lethbridge, concentrating on methane emissions from beef cattle. There’s another lab doing similar work for AAFC in Sherbrooke, Que., with a dairy focus.

In an Alberta feedlot, they’ve just finished a comprehensive study using a Netherlands-developed feed supplement containing the methane inhibitor 3-nitro oxypropanol, or 3-NOP. Methane reductions from trials in Europe had ranged from 20 per cent to 80 per cent, with the product’s developer, DSM, working toward approvals in several countries for use in cattle.

About 15,000 head were enrolled in the study, some on diets heavy of corn and barley, while others were fed more forages and grasses. There was no effect on health, Beauchemin said, and one element of the study showed increased feed efficiency while supplemented with 3-NOP. Similar to the European studies, methane emission reduction ranged from about 20 to 80 per cent, depending on the cows’ diets.

There has been work in Australia and California with a species of red seaweed, with one trial showing a 90 per cent reduction in methane emissions. It’s not a seaweed that occurs in Canada, but AAFC is looking into Canadian variations.

There has also been research done into the methane emissions when cattle consume various grass species, given that adding supplements to cows’ diets can be difficult if they’re gaining most of their nutrition through grazing, 

For now, the focus in Canada is on reducing emissions through feeding, rather than treating the methane after it’s emitted.

Although the work she’s involved with “demonstrates that it’s definitely possible,” Beauchemin doesn’t count out a future when something like the Cow Toilet or the methane mask also crosses the Atlantic. Consumers, she stressed, can have a powerful influence.

Perhaps Francisco Norris, the Royal College of Art student who co-founded ZELP, put it best when asked why his futuristic methane-converting halter/fan/filter might just take off: “Some consumers will choose to go vegan, and some will choose to eat less beef,” he told Bloomberg. 

“We want to make sure we can give people the choice to purchase beef and dairy products with a significantly lower climate impact.”

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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