Special Feed Halves Methane Production

THE NETHERLANDS - New research from the university of Wageningen has discovered that nitrate and sulphate, both reduce methane production in ruminants.
calendar icon 20 December 2010
clock icon 2 minute read

Sander Van Zijderveld, a PhD student at the Animal Feeds chair group of Wageningen University hit the headlines two years ago when he gave cows feed containing garlic. Lab tests with an imitation cow's stomach had suggested that garlic reduced methane production. Mr Zijderveld, who works for feed producer Provimi, had wanted to keep his tests secret, however a journalist in the testing shed clearly smelled garlic.

In the end, the discovery turned out to be a disappointment. "In cows garlic does not reduce the methane production and it also makes the milk smell garlicky." Neither was the desired effect achieved using linseed oil or powdered yucca plant, which reduced methane production in the lab.

But now Mr Zijderveld has discovered two little substances that really do reduce methane production in ruminants. He did so thanks to emeritus professor Ron Leng from Australia, who advised adding nitrate (NO3) and sulphate (SO3) to feeds. The PhD scholar tested this on 20 sheep on the island of Texel. The sheep that were given feed with 2.6 percent nitrate produced 32 per cent less methane. Sheep that were given the same amount of sulphate released 16 per cent less methane. And a combi of these additives reduced methane production by half.

It would be a bit much to add 2.6 per cent of these additives, says Mr Zijderveld. "If you suddenly give that sort of concentration to the sheep, their blood may be able to absorb less oxygen. That is unhealthy and for that reason these correlations have never been tested. But the Australian professor suggested that the ruminants should be given time to adjust gradually. This enables their stomach bacteria to convert the nitrate into a harmless product from which they can extract nutrients." Mr Zijderveld showed that dosing it like this had no ill effects on the health of the sheep. He published his research on sheep in the Journal of Dairy Science.

Meanwhile, Mr Zijderveld has also tested the nitrate on a group of dairy cows. In the cows the nitrate seemed to be less effective than in the sheep: the methane emissions went down by an average of 16 per cent. He is still figuring out why this would be.

Technically speaking, the additives are a success. Livestock farming is a major producer of greenhouse gases, including methane. These are generated in the stomachs of ruminants and are released into the environment via the mouth when they burp.

But however much methane is produced, it remains difficult for Provimi to launch these feed additives on the market. "Nitrate and sulphate do not raise milk production, so adding them has no economic added value for the farmer", says Mr Zijderveld.

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