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$3.2 million to go toward enteric methane reduction studies in dairy cows as part of the Accelerating Livestock Innovations for Sustainability (ALIS) project.

Methane is one of the greenhouse gasses responsible for climate change, and it is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a driver of global warming. At the same time, 14.5% of methane emissions each year come from ruminants such as cows, goats and sheep through their normal digestive process, which produces what’s known as enteric methane.

This is a significant problem for the livestock industry, and one that Joseph McFadden, associate professor of dairy cattle biology in the Department of Animal Science, is dedicated to addressing. As the principal investigator of the Accelerating Livestock Innovations for Sustainability (ALIS) project, developing safe and effective methane reduction strategies is his number one priority. 

So when the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) put out a call for research project proposals exploring enteric methane emission reduction, McFadden was quick to respond. He knew that ALIS, backed by Cornell’s infrastructure, had the expertise to help California, the U.S.’s number one dairy producing state. 

“Cornell was one of only two institutions outside California to receive a CDFA grant. California is putting its trust in us, and we aim to deliver."

McFadden proposed a project exploring the effects of dietary fatty acids on methane emissions in lactating dairy cows in collaboration with fellow Cornell researchers Christopher Mason, professor of genomics, physiology, and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine; Heather Huson, associate professor of animal science; Kristan Reed, assistant professor of animal science; Thomas Overton, professor of animal science and program director of PRO-DAIRY; and Jason Oliver, senior extension associate and dairy environmental engineer for PRO-DAIRY. 

“Cornell was one of only two institutions outside California to receive a CDFA grant,” said McFadden. “California is putting its trust in us, and we aim to deliver.”

The grant is for $1.5 million, combined with $1.7 million in matching funds from dairy industry companies and philanthropic organizations, for a total of $3.2 million. McFadden and his collaborators will use the funds for a series of studies to test alternative methane mitigation and monitoring technologies side by side.

The goal is first to tease apart how individual fatty acids, which are routinely fed to cattle, influence methane emissions. “Some fatty acids may actually decrease methane production (grams of methane per day), and some may decrease methane intensity (grams of methane per kilogram of milk),” McFadden said. “Understanding how specific fatty acids modify ruminal methanogenesis has the potential to synergize with methane-reducing feed additives.”

Next, McFadden and his colleagues will look at bromoform, a compound in Asparagopsis taxiformis, or red algae seaweed. Bromoform has the potential to reduce enteric methane emissions by inhibiting the enzymes that control rumen methanogenesis in cattle. 

The researchers will compare three different bromoform-containing technologies: freeze-dried Asparagopsis; raw Asperagopsis coated in canola oil, which has a stabilizing effect on the bromoform; and a synthetic bromoform product. “Whichever of these technologies proves to be safest and most effective will move forward to a clinical dose titration study,” McFadden said.

A large part of the research will take place in the new animal respiration chambers installed at the Animal Science Department’s Large Animal Research and Teaching Unit. The Cornell chambers, which are the only ones of their kind in the United States, are climate-controlled and monitor all emissions from an animal throughout the course of a day, thus allowing for accurate measurements of greenhouse gas emissions. 

The researchers will also collect rumen fluid from cows fed the special diets. Then Mason will do a genetic makeup on the rumen microbes to ascertain how they are responding to the particular feed additive. The goal is to understand how the microbes influence bromoform degradation and nutrient utilization in the rumen.

In addition, Mason will explore how the microbial environment in a cow’s rumen changes in the short and long term. “It’s quite possible a cow will adapt to the additive,” McFadden explained. “A cow might show an 80% reduction in methane production a week or two after feeding begins, but after several months, the rumen microbes may adapt and the cow return to its normal emissions.”

The researchers plan to collect blood and/or saliva from the cows, as well, which is where Huson’s research comes into the picture. She will use genotyping to try to pinpoint which genetic traits are related to particular methane responses. “Not all cows respond to an additive the same way,” Huson said. “The same additive might decrease emissions 40% in one cow and only 10% in another. I will be comparing the genotypes of the good responders and the bad responders, looking for where their genotypes differ.”

As a requirement of the grant, the CDFA asks that research specifically benefit the state of California. To that end, McFadden and his colleagues will be feeding the study cows lower forage diets similar to what cows in California eat, including uniquely Californian byproducts such as almond hulls. 

In addition, McFadden and Overton will create a conference to take place for three years in California, starting in 2025. “We’ll showcase the things we’ve learned through the work we do for this grant,” McFadden said. “We’ll bring in the other CDFA award winners, too, to talk about what they’ve been doing. This will be a way for all of us to demonstrate our knowledge and impact to California dairy producers.”

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

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