How to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle

Feed additives can lower methane gas emissions from cattle by at least 30 per cent

It’s possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock by at least 30 per cent, likely more, by using specially designed feed additives for cattle. A University of Calgary researcher is looking at how the Alberta cattle industry can adopt emission mitigation strategies.

Agriculture is associated with about eight to 10 per cent of total Canadian greenhouse gas emissions. Methane makes up the majority of agricultural emissions, and most (89 per cent) of agricultural methane emissions comes from beef and dairy cattle.

To better understand how Alberta agriculture compares internationally on emissions, the Government of Alberta has funded the Carbon Program at the Simpson Centre in the School of Public Policy. The two-year program aims to provide policy recommendations to reduce agricultural emissions and identify potential emission reduction strategies to meet federal targets.

As part of this program, Elena Vinco, a food and agriculture policy analyst with the Simpson Centre, began researching ways to reduce methane emissions from the cattle industry, with co-author Courtney Kwok.

Mitigation strategies and feed additives

“We’ve found two mitigation strategies most applicable in Alberta that involve the use of feed additives for dairy cattle and feedlot cattle because they receive a ration every day,” says Vinco.

“The additives have shown that they can reduce emissions up to, I would say conservatively, about 30 per cent, which is significant. It can depend on operation specifics and different breeds influence the emissions.”

One of the additives — 3-Nitrooxypropanol (3-NOP), a synthetic compound marketed as Bovaer — has been approved for use in cattle in Europe, Brazil, and Chile, but not in Canada or the United States. It targets enteric fermentation — a natural process in the cattle digestive system, where microorganisms break down and decompose plant materials, resulting in methane essentially being burped out.

Bovaer and another type of additive involving strains of marine macroalgae (seaweed), have been shown to decrease methane emissions from a minimum of 30 per cent and as much as 90 per cent. This includes trials completed in Lethbridge, data Vinco and Kwok are using in their anaylsis.

Feedlot field trial 

To get Canadian data, Feedlot Health Management Services — a feedlot consulting firm based in Okotoks — applied for an experimental study certificate so 3NOP could be tested in a large-scale commercial feedlot field trial. And while the reduction in emissions was significant, there is much more work to be done before Canadian farmers can begin using these additives.

First, they need to be registered and approved by the Canadian regulatory authorities for use. Then, farmers and ranchers need to use them. To determine if cattle producers will, or should use the additives, much more work needs to be done.

cattle grazing

“Everyone is interested in the effect on methane production. But rarely in biological systems is that the only outcome,” says Calvin Booker, general manager of services and research with Feedlot Health Management Services, and a veterinarian and epidemiologist.

“There’s no doubt there’s a reduction in methane emissions. The effects on cattle performance, and health and well-being, is still being worked through. In studies we do under experimental permits like this, we’re limited in how much we can explore. We’ve had a preliminary look at it and there’s some positives and negatives. But it’s going to take more work.”

Impact of additives 

The impact of using feed additives on animal health and welfare needs more study. There are also the consequences to the bottom line of beef and dairy producers to consider. If using the feed additives has negative effects on feed efficiency and more feed is needed to produce the same amount of beef, for instance, that would be a negative. Another negative would be if the additives led to slower weight gain requiring producers to keep their livestock longer before shipping them to market.

Booker says to really explore these outcomes, at least one of the feed additives will need to be approved for use in Canada so that these questions could be answered under Canadian production conditions.

There are other ways to reduce methane gas emissions from cattle, but some require costly technology or a complete overhaul of current operating systems which Vinco says isn’t feasible for most producers.

Farmers are already conservationists

She’s now focused on conducting interviews with producers and other key stakeholders to survey attitudes and sentiments around reducing emissions and adoption of different mitigation strategies. She plans to interview 40 to 60 beef, dairy, and crop producers.

She’ll also survey a range of experts including animal geneticists and ruminant nutritionists. Vinco will lend her subject matter expertise to assist in future carbon program research evaluating costs and benefits of different mitigation strategies.

Vinco will produce her first paper on this work in the fall, and further papers will be published leading to a symposium planned for 2023.

“Farmers are already doing so much. They understand the need to adapt to changing consumer preferences as well as increasing political pressures as we are moving toward net zero,” says Vinco.

“The reception has been positive overall. It’s important to recognize that farmers are conservationists and have been working on this already through such practices as sustainable grazing. This continues that work.”