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How UW scientists are working to curb the cow carbon footprint

How UW scientists are working to curb the cow carbon footprint

MADISON, Wis. - Though there are still traces of his French accent from his days growing up on a Belgian dairy farm, researcher Michel Wattiaux has been working with some of the giants in the industry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Dairy Cattle Center for more than three decades. 

“I'm just taking over on the shoulders of giants that came before in this department really,” said Wattiaux, who first came to the United States in the early 1980s as part of an international 4H youth exchange program.

Of particular interest to Wattiaux, is the impact of his beloved industry on the environment. He worked under UW researchers in the 1980s as they identified the impact of phosphorus from dairy farms and its subsequent runoff on our lakes and streams. 

Since last year, he has turned his focus to a new project that aims to reduce the carbon footprint of the dairy industry, which is substantial. Not long ago, Penn State University dairy researchers revealed that the amount of methane gas in the environment has increased roughly 143% over the past 200 years.  Wattiaux’s wanted to be a part of helping the dairy industry reach a goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 25% by the year 2020.  

The entire amount of that carbon footprint is actually measured over a broad period of time. From the moment a cow is fed, to the moment a milk carton is dropped at the landfill. That also includes the amount of methane and nitrous oxide gases that are emitted into the atmosphere as a result of both the storage and spreading of manure on farms. Where Wattiaux feels he can help is by giving farmers a blueprint to put forth a plan of action to reduce their carbon footprint, sometime next year after his research is complete. 

The “Breathalyzer” is really just the first step in that research study.  It’s important because methane production doesn’t happen in the dairy industry the way most people think it does. 

“The cow eats the feed, and it goes in to her rumen, which is her first stomach where the fermentation takes place,” Wattiaux said.  “But 90% of the methane coming out of the cow, comes out the front end as she breathes out the oxygen through her lungs. Only 5% comes out of the other end of the cow, which is a common misconception that a lot of people have.”

That’s why Wattiaux and his team of researchers have implemented the use of what is called a GreenFeed system, a form of Breathalyzer.  In the experiment, two different types of dairy cattle, Holsteins and Jerseys, were trained to eat from the machine.  As they eat, the amount of methane a cow exhales, is measured as she eats. The results are directly fed into a computer where the amounts are measured. 

Here’s how it was put to use by researchers at Penn State:

“There was a lot of work done for a lot of years to figure out how to make that happen,” says Wattiaux,  “You basically try to capture the breath of the cow measure the methane and try to measure the flow how much gas goes through so you can measure the amount of methane that comes out of the cow.”

The study was conducted using various types of diets. The goal is to figure out which diet for specific cows, will produce the lowest impact on the environment. 

“The numbers are easy to remember: For every pound of milk, that you would consume, there are 2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted in the atmosphere,” said Wattiaux. “Those gases are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The cow is responsible for most of that methane and the leftover is the methane from the manure.”

Wattiaux knows when his research is complete,  that a single approach won’t work for all farmers.

“It’s not gonna be a one size fits all. It’s going to be a menu of options. Depending on how you feed your cows, how you produce your feed, how you handle your manure.”

They hope to have their research complete by next year,  to take a step closer to helping the industry reduce its impact on the environment. 

“What we hope to achieve is to provide farmers with what fits best for their particular operation." 


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