Methane and cattle. How Air Pollution Occurs on Farms

And I learned about air pollution from cattle farms from the film “Save the Planet” (2016) by UN Climate Ambassador Leonardo DiCaprio. Very informative – highly recommended”

So (spoiler alert!), in one of the episodes, Leonardo arrives at an agricultural farm and communicates with environmentalists. In the background, cute cows with big noses loom, which make their “feasible” contribution to global warming …

Let’s not rush – we’ll figure it out step by step. 

It is known from school that there are some gases that create a kind of buffer in the lower layers of the atmosphere. It does not allow heat to escape into outer space. An increase in the concentration of gases leads to an increase in the effect (less and less heat escapes and more and more remains in the surface layers of the atmosphere). The result is an increase in average surface temperatures, better known as global warming.

The “culprits” of what is happening are the four main greenhouse gases: water vapor (aka H2O, contribution to warming 36-72%), carbon dioxide (CO2, 9-26%), methane (SN4, 4-9%) and ozone (O3, 3-7%).

Methane “lives” in the atmosphere for 10 years, but has a very large greenhouse potential. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), methane has a greenhouse activity 28 times stronger than CO2

Where does the gas come from? There are a lot of sources, but here are the main ones:

1. Vital activity of cattle (cattle).

2. Burning forests.

3. Increase in arable land.

4. Rice growing.

5. Gas leaks during the development of a coal and natural gas field.

6. Emissions as part of biogas at landfills.

The level of gas in the atmosphere changes over time. Even a small change in the share of CH4 leads to significant fluctuations in air temperature. Without going into the wilds of history, let’s just say that today there is an increase in the concentration of methane.

Scientists agree that agriculture plays a decisive role in this. 

The reason for the production of methane lies in the peculiarities of the digestion of cows. When burping and excreting digestive gases, animals emit a lot of methane. Cattle differ from other animals in “artificially bred” features of life.

Cows are fed a lot of grass. This leads to the digestion in the body of livestock of vegetative substances that are not processed by other animals. From abundant nutrition (the stomach of a cow contains 150-190 liters of liquid and food), flatulence develops in animals on farms.

The gas itself is formed in the rumen (the first section of the animal’s stomach). Here, a large amount of plant food is exposed to many microorganisms. The task of these microbes is to digest the incoming products. During this process, by-product gases are formed – hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Methanogens (another microorganism in the rumen) combine these gases into methane. 

Multiple solutions

Canadian farmers and agricultural experts have developed several types of dietary supplements for livestock. Proper formation of nutrition can reduce the formation of methane in the body of animals. What is used:

Linseed oil

· Garlic

Juniper (berries)

Some types of algae

Specialists from the University of Pennsylvania are working on the creation of genetically modified microorganisms that will stabilize the digestion of livestock.

Another solution to the problem, but indirect: systematic vaccination of cows will reduce the number of diseased individuals, which means that it is possible to ensure production with a smaller number of livestock. Consequently, the farm will also emit less methane.

The same Canadians are implementing the Canada Genome project. As part of a study (University of Alberta), experts in the laboratory study the genomes of cows that emit less methane. In the future, these developments are planned to be introduced into farm production.

In New Zealand, Fonterra, the largest agricultural producer, took up the environmental impact analysis. The company is implementing an environmental project that will conduct detailed measurements of methane emissions from 100 farms. With high-tech agriculture, New Zealand spends a lot of money every year on optimizing production and reducing environmental impact. Starting November 2018, Fonterra will make publicly available data on methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from its farms. 

The production of methane by bacteria in the stomach of a cow is a serious problem both globally and locally. A few years ago, on a German farm, animals were placed in a barn that did not have the necessary ventilation. As a result, a lot of methane accumulated and an explosion occurred. 

According to scientists’ calculations, each cow produces up to 24 liters of methane in 500 hours. The total number of cattle on the planet is 1,5 billion – it turns out about 750 billion liters every day. So cows increase the greenhouse effect more cars?

One of the leaders of the Global Carbon Project, Professor Robert Jackson, says the following:


Agricultural development, moving away from extensive methods of farming and reducing the number of cattle – only an integrated approach can help reduce the concentration of CH4 and stop global warming.

It’s not that cows are “to blame” for rising average temperatures on Earth. This phenomenon is multifaceted and requires great efforts in different directions. The control of methane emissions into the atmosphere is one of the factors that needs to be addressed in the next 1-2 years. Otherwise, the saddest predictions may come true …

In the next 10 years, the concentration of methane will become the determining factor in global warming. This gas will have a decisive influence on the rise in air temperature, which means that the control of its emissions will become the main task for preserving the climate. This opinion is shared by Stanford University professor Robert Jackson. And he has every reason to. 

Leave a Reply