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  • Animal Science
  • Animals
  • Climate Change
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  • Dairy
Increasing dietary fats holds promise as a strategy to reduce methane emissions in cattle.

Fabian Gutierrez-Oviedo is originally from Colombia where he completed his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tolima. He joined the Cornell Animal Science Department as a graduate student in Fall 2021. At the Joseph McFadden lab, he has worked on multiple research projects, including evaluating dietary immunomodulatory feed additives in dairy cows and calves, replacing conventional concentrates with sprouted grains, and developing feeding strategies to reduce methane emissions. His current research focuses on understanding and improving fatty acid digestibility as a strategy to enhance feed efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of dairy farms.

We spoke with Fabian about his latest research on reducing methane emissions in cattle.

Break it down for us: What do we need to know about methane and the livestock that produce it?

Methane is an important greenhouse gas, second only to carbon dioxide in terms of its contribution to global warming. Even though the life span of methane in the atmosphere is relatively shorter than that of carbon dioxide, it exhibits a higher global warming potential, approximately 25 times that of carbon dioxide.

Globally, livestock contribute to approximately 14.5 percent of total methane emissions caused by anthropogenic activities. Domestic ruminants such as cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats produce methane through a process known as enteric fermentation, which is a part of their natural digestive process.

Enteric fermentation happens when microorganisms that help digest the feed to produce energy and protein also produce methane, a by-product expelled mostly through burbs. The amount of enteric methane expelled by an animal depends on the quality and quantity of feed and the health and reproductive status of the animal, as well as environmental factors.

How can reducing methane emissions help save the planet?

Reducing the methane emissions from ruminants is crucial to combat global warming. If emissions are not decreased gradually, there is a propensity for the global temperature to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2026 and 2042. But can we mitigate these emissions without compromising the health and well-being of the cows? Numerous methane-controlling strategies have been discovered recently in this context. However, to get better results, appropriate and practically viable techniques should be put into practice.

Diverse livestock feeding systems play a pivotal role in addressing this challenge. By diversifying the energy sources available to microbes in the rumen, it is possible to modulate the microbial communities and fermentation pathways, consequently influencing methane production. Simple steps, such as incorporating high-quality forages or alternative energy-rich feeds, can be taken to reduce methane production.

Early studies centered on boosting fat content in ruminant diets reported methane reductions ranging from three to ten percent.

How can a fatty diet help ruminants produce less methane?

Dietary fats emerge as a promising solution among those energy-rich feeds, albeit with varying outcomes. Efforts to boost fat content in diets have shown potential to reduce methane emissions by shifting microbial populations and fermentation patterns, among other things. However, the feasibility of fat feeding is constrained to 6 to7 percent of the diet, due to adverse effects on feed intake and digestibility. 

The good news is that early studies centered on boosting fat content in ruminant diets reported methane reductions ranging from three to ten percent. Looking forward, more research exploring fat levels and fatty acid profiles is needed to understand how specific fatty acids shape methane emissions.

When will we learn more about your research on controlling ruminant methane emissions through boosting dietary fat?

I will be presenting an abstract on our work at the American Dairy Science Association annual meeting in June. I look forward to sharing more about our research then.

Jackie Swift is the communications specialist for the Cornell CALS Department of Animal Science.

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