At a New Zealand farm, scientists are reducing cow belching to save the world

PALMERSTON NORTH, New Zealand, Oct 11 (Reuters) – More than a dozen calves are waiting at a New Zealand research farm to be fed Kobucha, a probiotic with a funny name that studies say reduces belching – or methane emissions.

Kowbucha powder is mixed into a milk-like drink that is fed to calves at Massey University’s farm in Palmerston North.

The regular feeds are part of a series of trials being conducted by New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra ( FCG.NZ ) from 2021 to assess how effective the probiotic is at reducing methane emissions. New Zealand is committed to reducing biogenic methane emissions by 10% from 2017 levels by 2030 and by up to 47% by 2050.

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The “real eureka moment” came when early trials showed that calves emitted up to 20% less methane when given the probiotic supplement, said Chalome Basset, chief scientist at Fonterra’s Research and Development Centre.

“Probiotics are great because they’re a really natural solution,” Bassett told Reuters. “Whatever we do, it has to be something that’s easy for the farmer to use, it has to be cost-effective and we have to make sure it’s good for the cow and doesn’t have any effect on the milk.”

Ongoing trials show similar, promising results, she said. If that continues, Fonterra hopes to have Kowbucha sachets in stores by the end of 2024, Bassett said, before farmers start paying to burp the animals.

Fonterra said it had no information yet on the prices of the sachets.

Some feed additives marketed overseas have proven to be more effective. Royal DSM’s ( DSMN.AS ) Bovaer feed additive can reduce methane emissions by 30% in dairy cows and by more in beef cattle.

Fonterra said Kowbucha probably provides an easier solution overall, as farmers only need to feed it to calves when they are growing, given that it is expected to have a long-lasting effect.

BURP PRICES

In 2025, New Zealand will become the first country to put a price on agricultural emissions, including methane emissions from burping cows and sheep, whose digestive systems produce methane as they break down vegetation. Agricultural emissions account for about half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Before that, farmers, businesses and scientists are working on ways to reduce emissions without reducing herd numbers, given that agricultural products make up more than 75% of the country’s merchandise exports.

Aside from the early optimism surrounding Kowbucha, AgResearch scientists said in December they had successfully raised low-methane sheep, while a product called EcoPond, which virtually eliminates methane in farm wastewater, is on sale from late 2021.

New Zealand is also considering whether supplements that have been successful overseas can be adapted locally. Much of the science abroad focuses on changing the feed of barnyard animals and is more difficult to apply in a country where animals live mostly outdoors and eat grass.

“The easiest way to reduce emissions is to reduce production or have fewer animals in general, so that’s a real challenge when we’re trying to also produce food and keep the export returns at the level we want,” said ANZ agricultural economist Susan Kilsby.

Before 2025, the government released a proposal where biogenic methane and long-lived gases would be priced separately, but those prices would be set by the government.

While pricing farm emissions isn’t universally popular, many believe it’s the push farmers need to cut back.

Mike Manning, general manager of innovation and strategy at Ravensdown Agricultural Co-operative, said farmers were slow to adopt EcoPond technology without financial incentives.

The system reduces up to 99% of methane released from manure sludge left in the dairy after milking.

“People are saying, ‘well, I might wait until I have a methane price, then I have a financial driver,'” Manning added.

RESEARCH

The New Zealand government said in May it would spend NZ$380 million ($213.22 million) on research over four years to counter agricultural emissions.

The cash injection could speed up research and get some emerging technologies into the hands of farmers and producers “much sooner”, said Sinead Leahy, chief scientific adviser at the government-funded Center for Greenhouse Gas Research in Agriculture.

A lot of research is already underway.

After discovering that some sheep naturally produce less methane than others, Hamilton-based AgResearch bred sheep with this genetic trait to each other and found that the sheep with the lowest emissions produced nearly 13% less methane than those with the highest emissions.

If such breeding was carried out nationally, it could reduce New Zealand’s methane emissions by up to 1%, AgResearch said.

The dairy industry is now looking at how to apply this research to cows, Leahy said.

For Fonterra, research also remains key as it aims to limit farm emissions to 2015 levels. In addition to Kowbucha, it is also trialling other feed additives and seaweed.

“It’s definitely important for us to be a leader in this space. Our farmers need a solution and New Zealand needs a solution,” Bassett said.

($1 = NZ$1.7822)

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Reporting by Lucy Cramer; Editing by Ana Nicolacci da Costa

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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