Cutting methane emissions by making cows burp less is one of the strategies the federal government is going for in its climate change fight.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is produced during the normal digestive process of a herbivorous animal and subsequently released into the air when they burp – a process called “enteric methane emission,” according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The department is proposing financial incentives for farmers in the form of offset credits they can sell, in lieu of cutting enteric methane emissions from their beef cattle operations.
ECCC published a draft protocol Sunday to “encourage beef cattle farms to reduce enteric methane emissions by improving animal diets, management, and other strategies that support more efficient animal growth.”
Each credit represents one tonne of emission reductions, and the credits can be sold to facilities to help them meet emissions reduction requirements or to other businesses to meet their climate commitments, the government said.
“The point of this new offset protocol is to reward ranchers for using feed additives that help cut down on the methane from their cows,” Oliver Anderson, a spokesperson for federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, said in an emailed statement to Global News Monday.
“Over the years, through improved livestock genetics, farmers have already helped cut down on the overall amount of methane per each bottle of milk produced, for example.”
The eligible project activities proposed by the government are changes to the diet of cattle to improve digestion or suppress methane emissions, adding minor ingredients to the cattle diet to improve animal performance, feed efficiency or weight gain, and the use of growth promoters.
Tim McAllister, principal research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said measures like adding more grain and oil to the cattle diet can help reduce methane emissions.
“I think the protocol’s pretty opened up to those strategies that will lower methane emissions, but also improve the efficiency of production of the animal as well, so that it takes less feed to produce the same amount of meat,” he said in an interview with Global News on Monday.
How much do cows contribute to climate change?
Methane contributed about 13 per cent to Canada’s total greenhouse emissions in 2021.
According to a 2022 federal report that looked at Canada’s emissions of methane, more than 95 per cent of those emissions come from three sources: oil and gas, which makes up 38 per cent of methane emissions; agriculture, which makes up 30 per cent; and waste or landfills, which make up 28 per cent.
In 2021, emissions from livestock feed consumption and digestion accounted for 45 per cent of total agricultural emissions, and the application of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers contributed 20 per cent of total agricultural emissions, a national inventory report on greenhouse gas sources in Canada published in April states.
While methane can be released through the digestive system of a number of animals – such as bison, goats, horses, llamas, deer, wild boars and sheep – 96 per cent of emissions from enteric fermentation come from cattle in Canada.
The federal government is also looking at reducing nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, which can come from manure or animal feed.
The draft protocol is open for comments from stakeholders until Feb. 6, 2024 and a final version will be released next summer.
The implementation of the new measures underlined in the protocol will depend on how much they will cost the farmers and the benefits they give, McAllister said.
“The objective is always to meet the nutrient requirements of the animals so the diets are balanced,” he said. “But it’s also done from the perspective of a least-cost formulation because you don’t want to increase the diet to be too expensive.”
Agriculture is not the only sector Canada is targeting to reduce its methane emissions.
Last week, Ottawa also released a new draft plan the government says will help cut methane emissions from the country’s oil and gas sector by at least 75 per cent.