First 'sniffer' for extensive methane research installed

Category: Press release
The sniffers are placed in milk robots, where they measure the emissions from each individual cow at each milking session (photo: Wageningen Livestock Research)
The sniffers are placed in milk robots, where they measure the emissions from each individual cow at each milking session (photo: Wageningen Livestock Research)

After lengthy preparations, last week the first 'methane sniffer' was installed in the milk robot at a Dutch farm. This sniffer establishes the methane concentration in the air exhaled by each cow at each milking session.

Measurements of 10,000 cows

Over the coming months, sniffers will be installed in 100 farms, producing data about the methane emissions of over 10,000 cows. The pedigree and marker profile of these cows are also known, making it possible to develop a breeding value for methane emissions. This could be available for use in practice in around three years' time.

One percent less methane a year

In a preliminary study, measurements were performed on 15 farms. Based on the results, a simulation study was conducted. This showed that the heritability factor for methane emissions is between 20 and 30 percent. By including a breeding value for methane in the breeding goal, it is possible to achieve a reduction in methane emissions per kg of milk of around 1 percent a year.

Part of PPP research

The sniffer research is part of the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Climate Smart Cattle Breeding in which researchers from Wageningen Livestock Research are working on developing a breeding value for methane emissions. FrieslandCampina and CRV are also involved in this research.

Contribution to the environment and efficiency

'This research aligns very well with our sustainability strategy. Besides helping livestock farmers to breed healthy and efficiently producing cows, we also want to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,' says Maarten Moleman, lead innovator at CRV. 'Previous research has already shown that cows which efficiently convert feed into milk also emit less methane,' he says. 'As a result of this joint research project, in the future we will be able to contribute even more to methane reduction, maintaining production and other important features.'

Cutting methane emissions can cool the earth

The agricultural and livestock sectors account for some 70% of methane emissions worldwide. Methane is also known as a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. By making efforts to reduce methane emissions, dairy farming can contribute to a significant extent to improving the climate. Methane has a relatively short presence in the atmosphere. Whereas CO2 molecules remain active for thousands of years, methane molecules are slowly converted into water and CO2. This means that half of the methane molecules emitted to the atmosphere today will have been broken down in just over eight years. So in 17 years' time, only a quarter remains. If methane emissions are reduced, on balance more methane will be broken down in the atmosphere than is added to it. Moreover, the methane emitted by ruminants is part of a short natural cycle - contrary to the form of methane emitted by the oil and gas industry and waste processing, for example. Ruminants convert part of the carbon they intake from feed into methane. In the atmosphere, this methane is broken down into water and CO2, which is then absorbed and sequestered by the plants they eat. Theun Vellinga, senior researcher at Wageningen Livestock Research and a specialist in greenhouse gas emissions produced by livestock farming, compares greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to a blanket that forms around the earth to help it retain heat. ‘The more greenhouse gas, the thicker the blanket is and the faster the earth heats up’, he explains. ‘As CO2 is barely broken down in the atmosphere, reducing CO2 emissions simply slows down the thickening of this blanket, but doesn't make it any thinner. So the process of global warming continues. However, if methane emissions decrease, the blanket will become thinner, and the earth will cool down. Reducing methane emissions is therefore a powerful weapon to combat global warming.’ New scientific assessment and calculations, based on this theory, show that the IPCC (the international panel of experts that advises the United Nations on climate change) currently slightly overestimates the impact of methane emissions originating from livestock farming. The methane gas content in the atmosphere stabilises quite quickly at a reduction in emissions of 0.3% per year (i.e. 10% in 30 years). If methane emissions can be reduced by 25% over a 30-year period, the methane gas content in the atmosphere will decrease far enough to create a cooling effect.