Lemongrass has received media attention of late for its potential to reduce methane emissions in livestock. However, it’s just the latest in a long line of additives being studied.
Following 10 to 15 years of investigations into other compounds, some clear winners have emerged, according to Dr. Karen Beauchemin, a research scientist who specializes in livestock digestion with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Why it matters: Well-researched feed additives that reduce greenhouse gasses emitted by livestock are largely not available to farmers. Regardless, improving herd management can itself have a significant impact.
Beauchemin says significant research shows an organic compound called 3-nitrooxypropanol to be the most promising inhibitor of methane produced during feed digestion in the cow’s rumen methane. The compound, which breaks down into its respective parts within the ruminant stomach, brings methane reductions ranging from 20 to 80 per cent, depending on other management factors.
“There’s a lot of evidence it can have a huge impact. It just depends on so many things. That’s part of the difficulty in assessing these things and why we need so much data to make sure it works, and that it’s safe,” says Beauchemin.
“Now the issue is the regulatory process. We know it works but we have to go through the steps.”
In Europe, 3-nitrooxypropanol is being fast-tracked through the regulatory process, meaning farmers operating in the political jurisdiction will have access to the technology far sooner than North American farmers. Access for the latter, she says, could take years.
Other research indicates the red, tropical seaweed known as Asparagopsis taxiformis can bring as much as an 80 per cent reduction in methane emissions. This, Beauchemin says, is thanks to a bioactive component within the plant that suppresses the rumen’s ability to create methane.
“There’s a lot of interest because you could argue that it’s more natural, which could help consumer acceptance,” she says, but adds that “natural” also means variations in how much of the bioactive compound is in the sourced seaweed. Timing of harvest, seaweed development, and many other factors can all influence effectiveness.
Tropical seaweeds don’t grow in cold waters either, making ready availability a challenge for Canadian producers. Tank production could overcome this, but it requires substantial investments. For these and other reasons, Beauchemin says researchers are looking for other species of seaweed that will have similar properties but grow in the Canadian climate.
New technologies aside, Beauchemin stresses livestock producers cannot underestimate how significant an impact efficient herd management can have.
“Don’t focus on methane reduction per se. Focus on improving efficiency of herd management. What we’re looking at is producing more meat and milk without increasing greenhouse gas emissions through improved nutrition, breeding and management,” says Beauchemin.
“For example, we observed the Canadian beef industry reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by about 15 per cent over the past three decades through improvements in average daily gains, increased slaughter weights, improved reproductive efficiency, increased crop yields, and use of higher quality diets. Further gains in efficiency and productivity, and corresponding reductions in emissions, are still possible in the future.”