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University of Saskatchewan studies ‘burping’ beef cattle to study methane emissions

WATCH ABOVE: The University of Saskatchewan is looking at different grazing forage systems and how they affect methane production in beef cattle.

Dr. Bart Lardner with the University of Saskatchewan is studying the effects different types of grazing forages could have on emissions from beef cattle.

“We are looking at the integration of legumes which are really important at improving the quality of forages,” he said. “We‘re looking at animal growth, biomass, herbage yield quality, water dynamics out here, as well as soil nutrient profile.

“Even more importantly we’re looking at emissions and carbon sequestration.”

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He is conducting a four-year research study looking at four different types of forages and tracking emissions produced by steers while grazing.

READ MORE: Harvest in Saskatchewan impacted by cool and wet weather

Samples will be collected and studied throughout an approximately 90-day grazing period, but Lardner explained they aren’t tracking what comes out of the animals rear — instead, they’re looking at nasal vapours.

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“Ruminants do tend to eructate, or burp, a lot of gasses because of that fermentation digestive system,” he said.

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Second-year masters student Tess Mills is working on the research project at the university. She said they can collect daily samples by slipping a device called a ‘yoke’ around an animals neck.

“This just sits above their nose,” she explained while gesturing to the device. “It sucks up through these two sides here, then the vacuum will then pull up the gases of the methane and the carbon dioxide.”

Spot samples are also being collected by greenfeed units in the fields. Lardner explained they can lure the animal to the unit with a pelleted treat.

“The animal puts its face into this nose chamber, it eats that treat, but at the same time we’re able to capture nasal vapours,” he said.

Two perennial and two annual treatments are being looked at in the study.

“The two perennial treatments are hybrid bromegrass with sainfoin which is a non-bold legume and the other one is a meta bromegrass with a new alfalfa cultivar,” Lardner said.

“The annual treatments are fall rye with barley and the other one is some of the braska species with a berseem clover which is an annual clover.”

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Larder said perennial systems are lower maintenance for producers but annual systems might provide more efficiency.

READ MORE: Pace of growth in Saskatchewan farmland values slows: FCC

“They will have to re-seed every year, but maybe there is some opportunity there to have a higher quality feed in front of the animal, reduce the emissions, and capture more carbon.”

Lardner said the public perception of cattle emission is quite high, but in reality, they only produce about three per cent of greenhouse gases. He’s hopeful studies like this should help reduce the emissions even more.

“We can give the information back to the stakeholders, industry, and producers,” he said.

“When they get asked those questions we can give them scientific data that they’re able to re-butt and show the real facts.”

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Preliminary findings of the study are expected to be released next year, but Lardner said they’ll have more answers for producers after three to four years worth of data is collected.

“I think if producers look at high-quality pastures in their operations, including legumes and some of these opportunistic forages to opportunity crops,” he said.

“It is going to show that, ‘Yes I can capture more carbon, I can reduce my emissions as well as grow out good beef cattle.'”

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Animal genetics and breed type may also play a role in the reduction of methane, Lardner said, but it would need to be studied further.

“There are some types of beef breeds that do better on different forage systems than others,” he explained.  “Some of the Continental breeds may not do as well on forage systems, some of the British breeds do a little bit better.”

Lardner said he’s also working on other research to reduce methane emissions in beef cattle, by introducing another substance, which is essentially charcoal called biochar fed to cattle in a pellet or mineral form.

“In the lab, we’ve shown that biochar reduces methane emissions or methane productions in a lab setting,” he said.  “We’re looking at that as well to try and replicate that in a field system.”