Lasers measure methane to evaluate feeding systems

LACOMBE, Alta. — A meteorologist and a pair of laser beams may hold the secret to reducing methane gas in beef cattle.

Special laser beams shot along the edges of a long narrow cattle paddock at Agriculture Canada’s re-search centre at Lacombe can detect and measure the methane gas given off by a group of cattle grazing on triticale swaths.

With a growing concern over greenhouse gas emissions, the research may hold the key to giving cattle production a greener future.

Tom Flesch, research associate with the University of Alberta’s earth and atmospheric sciences department, said the gold standard of methane gas measurement is made inside special atmospheric chambers, but it’s not relevant in cattle production.

“We want to try to measure the cattle in real world conditions,” Flesch said during a Western Canadian Grazing Conference tour of the research farm.

Methane is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and beef cow-calf operations are among the largest emitters of methane in agriculture.

Methane is emitted through cattle’s breathing and their digestion in the rumen.

Flesch said measuring methane that is pushed across the laser beams by wind while the cattle are grazing may lead scientists to develop strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make cattle production more profitable.

The temporary electric fence paddocks are 150 metres long and seven metres wide. Cattle graze on triticale swaths inside the paddocks.

In January, the cattle will be moved to corn swaths to see if there are changes in methane production.

They may also be moved to a bunk type feeding system to see if more or less methane is emitted from cattle in swath grazing than a traditional feeding system.

The research scientists are also measuring the quantity and quality of feed eaten to see if that affects methane production.

Flesch said he has used similar technology to measure ammonia emissions in hog barns, waste lagoons and landfill sites, but this is one of the first times the technology has been used to measure methane in grazing cattle.

Scientists around the world are now adopting Flesch’s techniques for measuring methane.

“It’s a bit of a small, scientific success story.”

Machines will be added this winter to measure other greenhouse gases. The equipment collects data without trouble in extreme conditions from -30 C to 45 C.

“We can be out all winter getting measurements. The equipment will work all year round.”

Agriculture Canada scientist Vern Baron said the research would help scientists understand how much methane cattle emit throughout the year.

“We want to verify what is the carbon footprint of the beef industry,” said Baron.

About the author

Mary MacArthur's recent articles


Stories from our other publications