The Arctic ice is melting, places that used to experience brutal, heavy winters now experience mild, chilly winters, while untimely rains, floods, typhoons and cyclones rage around the world. We are progressively experiencing the effects of global warming, and there’s no point in denying it! Furthermore, this is not good news for our planet.
So… where do cows figure into this global catastrophe? Long story short: Cows burp and fart methane -> Methane traps heat -> Trapped heat increases Earth’s surface temperature -> Global warming.
Even with that simple equation, we like fleshing out our stories, so let’s look at it piece by piece.
What is Global Warming?
There is a lot of attention surrounding this phrase in recent years; in fact, a summit was just held in Paris to discuss ways to reverse the effects of climate change. Global warming is defined as a gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the presence of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and other air pollutants that trap the direct rays from the Sun, as well as ultraviolet rays. The trapped heat increases the surface temperature of Earth, causing quite a few disturbances in natural cycles, not to mention environmental hazards.
Why Do Cows Burp and Fart Methane?
Cows belong to the class of ruminants – animals that have a four-chambered stomach and regurgitate what they eat as cud before chewing and eating it again. Animals like cows eat plants and grass, which are difficult to digest. Fortunately, they have a four-chambered stomach, so the food they eat it initially digested in the first two stomach chambers. Then, they bring up this digested food (or cud) and chew it again before passing it on to their stomach and intestine to digest a second time. One of the microbes in the digestive system that breaks down their food produces methane as a byproduct.
A single cow, on average, releases 70 to 120 kgs of methane per year. Now, it is important to remember that we’re talking about a single cow. Worldwide, there are approximately 1.5 billion cows and bulls, each emitting that much methane. That’s a lot of extremely harmful greenhouse gas! Methane is 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Also, when methane mixes with oxygen in the atmosphere, gradually, it transforms into carbon dioxide.
Livestock and cattle further contribute to global warming as a result of their diet, which contributes to deforestation. In order to graze, cows need grasslands. At times, forest cover is cut down to create pastures for cows, which again harms the environment and contributes to global warming.
Cows vs Cars
According to the United Nations, agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases and cattle are a major contributor to this figure. A Japanese study showed that one kilogram of beef produces 36.4 kilograms of CO2, while an average European car emits the same amount for every 250 kilometers it drives, which is a huge difference! In simple terms, rearing cattle causes more damage to the atmosphere than owning a car.
Myth or Reality
However, this research has received some criticism on the basis of the sample that was used for the study. The blame is being put on industrial agriculture, which messes with the natural diet of cattle. Feeding cattle corn to increase milk production also increases the amount of methane they emit through their burps and farts. Cows grazing on certain varieties of grass that are more nutritious for them emit less greenhouse “gas”. Also, pastures or animal fodder that has been sprayed with fertilizer wreaks havoc on their digestive system, leading them to release excess gases.
In a study conducted by a university in Germany focusing on Inner Mongolia in China found that grassland produced more nitrous oxide during the spring thaw when sheep or cattle have not been grazing. This is because that particular greenhouse gas, famously known as laughing gas, is released by microbes in the soil. When the grass is long, snow settles, thus keeping the microbes warm and providing water. However, when the grass is cut short by animals, the ground freezes and the microbes die.
More studies need to be done to reach a final verdict regarding our culprit cows, but it’s always good to cut down a bit on red meat consumption and feed your cattle quality fodder for their overall health – and yours!
- Cow Burps Contributing Global Warming – Penn State Extension
- Our World
- Carbon, Methane Emissions and the Dairy Cow – Penn State Extension