Methane production naturally occurs in the stomachs of ruminant animals, such as beef cattle. Microbes work together to carry out the digestion of plant cell walls, and one of the end products of the process is methane (which often gets “burped” out, not “farted.”)

Dr. Tim McAllister, research scientist in ruminant nutrition and microbiology at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lethbridge, Alta., recently joined Shaun Haney on RealAg Radio to talk about methane emissions from cattle, and how emissions might be reduced.

McAllister explains that methanogens, which produce methane, can persist in anaerobic conditions other than ruminant digestion — landfills, swamps, sloughs, or peat bogs, are also anaerobic environments where methanogens can survive and emit methane.

So, when it comes to reducing methane emissions from cattle production, is it about lessening the amount that they burp, or what they’re burping up?

McAllister says it depends how methane emissions are measured.

“We already have ways, we know by changing the diet, we can change the amount of methane [emitted] per kilogram of feed,” he says. “If we express methane emissions per kilogram of animal produced, by kilogram of carcass, then we can also change diet, that starts to get into efficiencies.”

Cattle fed a high-grain diet will emit much less per kilogram of meat produced, than on a forage-based diet, says McAllister.

“If you prove feed efficiency in the cattle, then you’ll also lower methane emissions per kilogram of meat produced as well,” he explains, adding that it’s all about how you measure those emissions.

McAllister says that a recent study showed that carbon emissions from beef cattle production was reduced over a 30 year period by 15 per cent, as a result of improved efficiencies from improved nutrition, improved genetics, and the use of performance enhancing technologies.

Currently, policy isn’t clear about how the government would measure emissions and reductions. He also says that additive science (like using seaweed), while it might show positive reductions in emissions, still needs to go through much more rigorous testing, the peer-review process, and figuring out how to produce sufficient material without disturbing other ecosystems.

Listen to the full conversation between McAllister and Haney, including more on additives and other technologies below:

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