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Getting creative to cut methane from cows

Less-burpy bovines means fewer greenhouse gases

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4:36pm, November 18, 2015
cows grazing

GREENER COWS  These cows at the Ellinbank Dairy Research Centre in Victoria, Australia, wear backpacks that measure their methane output.

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In a pasture outside Edmonton, Canada, you’ll find a few dozen cows doing what cows do: mostly eating. The average animal spends eight-plus hours a day filling its belly, or as is the case with cows, bellies. Along with that enormous appetite, cows are born with the ability to digest almost any plant they can chew, thanks to a multichambered stomach and a helpful army of gut microbes that break down food that most mammals cannot.

The system is an evolutionary bonanza for cattle, but it’s not so easy on the environment — which is why the animals at the Lacombe Research Centre are no ordinary grazers. Through a transponder clipped to the ear of each cow, scientists record when a cow sticks her head into a bin of tasty feed pellets. As she eats, a solar-powered fume hood above captures her exhalations. Laser beams surround the pasture, reading gases in the atmosphere.

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