India’s answer to climate change: Cows that belch less

May 05, 2016

India is home to more than 280 million cows and 200 million more ruminant animals like sheep, goats, yaks and buffalo. According to analysis of satellite data, all those digestive tracts send about 13 million tons of methane into the atmosphere every year — one of the most prevalent greenhouse gases linked to climate change.

So, to combat this issue scientists are working hard on finding a way to make these animals less flatulent. Scientists at the Cow Research Institute in Mathura, around 100 miles south of New Delhi, are tinkering with cattle feed, seeking a formula that will create less gas for the cows to belch out.

(That is how most of it is released, by the way; scientists in a recent article say much less comes from farting.)

And that’s a good thing, because in addition to the country’s ruminant animal population, they have no plans to cut back on the use of fossil fuels, another contributing factor to climate change around the world. In fact, India plans to double its coal production by 2019.

Other researchers in the southern state of Kerala are working on a more long-term answer to reduce the amount of animal belching. Though wealthier countries have developed antibiotics and dietary supplements to address the problem, farmers in India often can't afford the pricey supplies for their cattle.

E.M. Muhammed, a breeding expert, has been experimenting with an indigenous strain of miniature cattle that produce less milk than typical crossbred cows but are much better able to stand very hot weather. An unexpected surprise along the way, he said, was that these dwarf animals, which are about one-quarter the weight of crossbred cows, produce only one-seventh as much manure and one-tenth as much methane.

In a side-by-side field trial on a blistering summer afternoon, Dr. Muhammed said in the article that the dwarf cattle did fine while “the crossbred animals were struggling to survive — one of them fainted.” So he is working to isolate what he calls the “thermometer genes” in the miniature cows’ DNA, so his team can develop a large population of cattle that are heat-tolerant and planet-friendly.

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Category: Agriculture