Cows never seem to ask for much in comparison to what they give. In many cases, gone are the days of leisurely grazing in green pastures; yet milk production has never been higher. Sure, cows still get to hang out with their friends; but as modern and sophisticated as today’s barns tend to be, the view and atmosphere is hardly bucolic.
My dad milked cows twice a day; but today’s bovines routinely give up their precious cargo three times a day, around the clock. Robots are replacing human touch, but cows dutifully stand in line waiting for their turn to be milked. Today’s dairy animals receive the best nutritional and veterinary care; but it’s a young cows’ world and even the most faithful milkers enjoy a fairly limited shelf life.
On top of it all, cows are being blamed for global warming. Cargill wants them to start wearing masks.
The news broke on the first day of Dairy Month: “Cargill will sell cow masks to catch methane hiccups.”
Bloomberg reporter Agnieszka de Sousa tells us, “Agriculture giant Cargill will start selling methane-absorbing wearable devices for dairy cows, supporting an experimental technology that can help the industry reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
“This mask-like accessory was developed by the British start-up Zelp Ltd., which claims it can cut methane emissions by more than half,” de Sousa writes. “Cargill said on Tuesday (June 1) that it expects to provide these equipment to European dairy farmers in 2022.”
de Sousa goes on to say contrary to the misconception that flatulence is the main cause of methane production in livestock, about 95 percent of the methane released by cows is expelled through hiccups and noses. Zelp’s wearable device is placed above the cow’s mouth, a bit like a catalytic converter in a car. A set of fans powered by solar rechargeable batteries absorbs hiccups and traps them in a chamber with a methane absorption filter. Once the filter is saturated, a chemical reaction converts methane into carbon dioxide, which is then released.
Sander van Zijderveld, Cargill’s head of marketing and technology for Ruminant Strategy for Western Europe, said that these masks appeal to Cargill because they can be combined with other solutions. Some food suppliers are testing or have begun to use feed additives to inhibit the microbes in the stomach of dairy cows to help them reduce the methane they produce.
“The benefit of Zelp is that it can supplement cows that have received feed additives to reduce methane emissions,” he said. “It can still capture the emitted methane. We can reduce it further.”
It’s good to hear the “devices” are still undergoing tests to determine if they have any impact on animal behavior. On the other hand, cows aren’t big complainers. If milk production doesn’t suffer, and Cargill stands to make lots of money, the program may be expanded to regions outside of Europe.
de Sousa reports Zelp has not demonstrated the effectiveness of the technology to independent experts. Francisco Norris, CEO of Zelp, said that the peer-reviewed research will be conducted in the fourth quarter after the product is fully optimized.
Will cows still be able to sneeze? I recall many a time being dosed with a healthy portion of cow snot while tending to the animals. It seems this would dampen the effectiveness of these masks, but I’m no scientist.
Speaking of scientists, The Journal of Dairy Science stated in October of 2020 that removal of dairy cows from the United States may reduce essential nutrient supply with little effect on greenhouse gas.
The report says the U.S. dairy industry contributes roughly 1.58 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “However,” the report goes on to say, “it also supplies the protein requirements of 169 million people, calcium requirements of 254 million people, and energy requirements of 71.2 million people.
Scientists from Virginia Tech and the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center studied the effects of dairy product removal on greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient availability in U.S. diets under various removal scenarios: depopulation, current management (export dairy), and retirement. In depopulation, consumers would stop consuming dairy products, resulting in depopulation of the animals. In current management (export dairy), the cattle management would remain the same and milk produced would be used for products other than human food or exported for human consumption. In retirement, the cattle would be retired to a pasture-based system but reduced to numbers that could be supported by available pastureland.
“Land use was a focus in all animal removal scenarios because the assumptions surrounding how to use land made available if we remove dairy cattle greatly influence results of the simulations,” said lead investigator Robin R. White, PhD, Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech. “If dairy cattle are no longer present in U.S. agriculture, we must consider downstream effects such as handling of pasture and grain land previously used for producing dairy feed, disposition of byproduct feeds, and sourcing fertilizer.”
Greenhouse gas emissions were unchanged in the current management (export dairy) scenario, with a decrease in nutrient supplies, as expected. Emissions declined 11.97 percent for the retired scenario and 7.2 percent for the depopulation scenario compared to current emissions.
At the same time, the report says all 39 nutrients considered in human diet quality were decreased for the retired scenario, and although 30 of 39 nutrients increased for the depopulation scenario, several essential nutrients declined. The results of the study suggest the removal of dairy cattle from U.S. agriculture would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 0.7 percent and lower the available supply of essential nutrients for the human population.
So good news if you’re a cow, but it’s not all shade and clover if you’re a Holstein. Jo Craven McGinty of The Wall Street Journal writes this:
“Holsteins give more milk than any other dairy cow in the country, with the average female producing around 23,000 pounds of milk over 305 days, according to the Holstein Association USA. The entire population provides 94 percent of the nation’s milk. But selective breeding — allowing farmers to mate only animals with the most desirable traits — has led to so much inbreeding that virtually all Holsteins in the United States and abroad descend from just two bulls. So, while there are roughly nine million Holsteins in the United States, the breed’s effective population (a measure of genetic diversity) is just 43, according to an estimate published last year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Dairy Science … In the wild, animals with an effective population of less than 50 are considered at immediate risk of extinction because of the increased risk of miscarriages, stillbirths and genetic abnormalities.”
This is not exactly news. In June of 2019, Maureen O'Hagan wrote in Undark Magazine, “When researchers at the Pennsylvania State University looked closely at the male lines a few years ago, they discovered more than 99 percent of them can be traced back to one of two bulls, both born in the 1960s. That means among all the male Holsteins in the country, there are just two Y chromosomes.
“The females haven’t fared much better. There is so much genetic similarity among them, the effective population size is less than 50. If Holsteins were wild animals, that would put them in the category of critically endangered species. “It’s pretty much one big inbred family,” says Leslie B. Hansen, a Holstein expert and professor at the University of Minnesota.”
O’Hagan said researchers have begun breeding a small batch of new cows, cultivated in part from the preserved semen of long deceased bulls, to measure a host of characteristics — height, weight, milk production, overall health, fertility, and udder health, among other traits — and compare those to the modern Holsteins we’ve created. The hope is that they might one day be able to possibly reawaken traits which have been lost to relentless inbreeding.
“If we limit long term genetic diversity of the breed,” said says Chad Dechow, one of the researchers, “we limit how much genetic change can be made over time.”
In other words, we could reach a point where we’re stuck where we’re at. There will be no more improvement in milk production. Fertility won’t improve. And if a new disease comes along, huge swaths of the cow population could be susceptible, since so many of them have the same genes.
Dairy producers are finding success in crossbreeding Holsteins with other breeds. Hoard's Dairyman recently cited that beef semen sales to dairy herds have nearly quadrupled in the past 15 years with the bulk of that growth — 59 percent of it — happening in the last year alone.
Purebred Holsteins were compared with cows from a three-breed rotation of Holstein with Viking Red and Montbéliarde in a 10-year study by the University of Minnesota involving 3,550 Holstein cows from Minnesota commercial dairies. The team found each combination of two- and three-breed crossbred cows demonstrated significant advantages over pure Holsteins for all fertility traits at each studied lactation.
The University’s Amy Hazel said crossbreeding does not seem to impact production. "Because of the global predominance of high-producing Holsteins, some dairy producers have been concerned that crossbred cows will have poorer milk production traits," Hazel said. "But our study found little, if any, loss of fat and protein production for crossbred cows compared with their Holstein herdmates."
Dairy Month is good time to remind each other a healthy supply of dairy animals keeps us all healthy; and a time to thank our dairy farmers and the veterinarians who keep them that way.
And a little extra ice cream for me this month.
Paul Malchow is the managing editor of The Land. He may be reached at editor@TheLandOnline.com.