Recent discourse has told us that cows and mass farming are bad for the environment. While this is not entirely incorrect, it is not entirely true either. The distinct difference between methane emissions from cows and carbon emissions from factories, cars, and other man-made machines is that the latter does not follow the natural carbon cycle.
The reason methane and cow farms have made such a big impression on the environmental community is because the sheer number of livestock being used for production purposes means that there are higher levels of methane in the environment. Livestock is responsible for roughly 14% of greenhouse gases which makes controlling the methane output of cows a high priority on the list of global climate solutions.
How does methane work?
Methane traps heat in the environment which exacerbates the effects of global warming and climate change. If there are excess amounts of methane in the atmosphere, air quality will decrease, animals and humans will experience various health issues, and it will contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer.
When cows belch and excrete, they release methane into the atmosphere. The problem is that the world’s population requires the mass production of beef and dairy. This type of mass farming results in increased methane. The issue with this is that methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
So, while factories and man-made machines tend to release excess amounts of CO2, it is not nearly as potent at trapping heat as methane. This is problematic when a single cow releases roughly 220 pounds of methane a year. There are roughly 14 million cows in South Africa alone…
However, methane only stays in the atmosphere for about 12 years. This means that while more methane is being produced, in 12 years these emissions will be broken down into carbon dioxide and water. Through photosynthesis, the CO2 and H2O are absorbed by the grass and the cows can graze on the land again; continuing the natural carbon cycle.
What is the difference between CO2 from cows and CO2 from factories?
The difference between the CO2 emitted by factories and cars is that this carbon dioxide is a manufactured addition to the atmosphere.
With methane, there is a natural cycle that means the carbon dioxide gets absorbed back into the earth but with factories, there is too much CO2 for it to be sufficiently absorbed. This leads to excess greenhouse gases, the depletion of the ozone layer, and the increase in the core temperature of the planet.
If there is an excess number of cows, the methane that is present in the atmosphere for 12 years before it is reabsorbed into the environment can be quite detrimental.
So, how can cows be the solution?
There is hope! Cows can actually be a climate solution despite the amount of methane they produce in a year. Firstly, the natural carbon cycle is on their side. The repurposing and reabsorbing of methane into the environment are a definite bonus when advocating for cows as the next climate solution.
Sustainable farming is another effective way to ensure that farms don’t release too much methane into the atmosphere. This entails developing innovative technologies, transforming methane into renewable biogas, and adjusting cow feed to ensure they produce less methane.
AgResearch in New Zealand is working on a vaccine for cows that will help to reduce the levels of methane emitted by cows. With technology on our side, farming will become more sustainable and the industry can reduce the overall greenhouse emissions.
At Dairy Group, we understand the importance of sustainable farming. If our farms and cows are going to continue to thrive, we must take climate change seriously. Stay tuned for more information on sustainable farming practices and technologies as we bring producers and farmers the information they need to refine and optimise the dairy industry.