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I plant one boot into the mud and think, “Oh no. I’m gonna stink up the plane on the flight home.” Well, I’m committed now.
I start slogging my way through a dairy pen at UC Davis. It has a distinctive smell, as anyone who’s driven through California’s Central Valley can attest to.
Dairy farmers call it “the smell of money.”
I’m here because one of the nation’s leading research universities in the field of animal science is trying to figure out how to reduce the amount of methane coming out of both ends of a cow.
They want answers. I want to know if there’s money to be made.
An intern gently leads one cow toward a contraption with a metal hood. “It’s a voluntary head chamber,” says PhD candidate Mallory Honan. We watch as the cow sticks her head inside the hood and starts eating food pellets which drop into the bottom. “They love it,” she says.
The machine measures the methane the cow burps up. (95% of the methane comes out the front end of a cow, despite popular opinion.) Honan is trying to get a baseline methane reading on this cow and several others. That’s because she and her colleagues are about to change the diet of some of the animals. While one group of cows will continue to eat their normal feed, a separate group will begin eating a diet supplemented with probiotics. The research team wants to determine if probiotics can reduce the methane output without creating negative consequences for the animals. They also want to see if the change in feed affects the taste of the cows' milk or meat.
I’ve come here to learn more about the process, but suddenly I have to know about this “voluntary head chamber.”
“Who built it?” I ask Ermias Kebreab, PhD, director of the university's World Food Center. “It’s called C-Lock,” he tells me. “How much do these cost?” I follow up. “This one is $80,000.”
$80,000? I pause a moment, perhaps emitting a little methane myself.
Ermias says C-Lock has made hundreds of these machines, called GreenFeed. “We took one to Ethiopia and another to Burkina Faso.” (I’ll save you some time. Burkina Faso is a country in West Africa.)
I make a mental note to check out C-Lock later, because whether or not anything comes from the probiotics experiment, C-Lock is already making money.
Cows are not simple-stomached animals like you and me. They have four chambers, and as food goes through the digestive process, a lot of carbon dioxide is created. Microbes in the gut use hydrogen to convert the carbon dioxide into methane. Ermias tells me that cows emit “thousands of times” more methane than humans.
The New York Times reported in 2020 that if cows were a country, research suggests they’d be the sixth largest “emitter” of methane, “ahead of Brazil, Japan and Germany.” There are about 1.4 billion cattle around the world, and each one spews out the greenhouse-gas equivalent of half a car every year. So, like 700 million cars. That’s more than twice the number of vehicles in the U.S., according to the federal government.
That’s a whole lotta hot air. And while methane “only” lasts 10–12 years in the atmosphere, Ermias says the gas is very effective in trapping heat. “If you can reduce methane in the short term, you have a lot of benefits.”
Meantime, I stop listening to him. Because... cows:
Where was I.
Oh yeah. So there’s money to be made in doing something about it. Silicon Valley billionaire investor Chris Sacca has helped fund Mootral, a Swiss company researching how adding garlic and citrus extracts to cattle feed can reduce methane output. At the same time, the USDA will be investing $1 billion in projects to reduce greenhouse gases coming off farms.
UC Davis began researching cattle feed additives a few years ago. They thought curry might help reduce methane emissions. It didn’t. Lemongrass worked in Mexico, but not in California (TIL that lemongrass from Fresno is not the same as “tropical” lemongrass).
And then there’s seaweed.
In 2019, Ermias' team selected 21 beef cattle and began putting in their feed some special seaweed from Australia (I asked what’s special about it, but I already forgot). At first, they added a lot — up to 1% of the cattle feed — but the cows didn’t like it. They ate less, and that’s bad for business. The sweet spot for adding seaweed ended up between 0.25% and 0.5% of the total feed.
After five months of eating the new feed, that tiny amount of seaweed reduced the cattle’s methane output by a whopping 80%. “There actually was even better reduction of methane at the end of the five months than the beginning,” Ermias says.
Did it change the taste of the beef? He says he gathered a panel of over 100 people and fed them beef from cattle that ate the new feed alongside beef from cattle that did not. It was a blind taste test. “They could not detect any difference.”
Then UC Davis tried the new feed for three months on a dozen dairy cattle, and saw a methane reduction of 40%. The milk tasted the same.
There appears to be no harm to the cattle, but Mallory Honan says more research is needed to make sure there aren’t unintended consequences. What are the longterm effects on cows? Will this new way of doing business add greenhouse gases to the environment with extra transportation costs? “Just because we’re seeing this reduction doesn’t mean we want to just throw it into a system.”
If the feed is promising enough to scale to a commercial level, it will take more investment, regulatory approval, and farmers willing to pay more for it. Ermias believes cattle ranchers may be able to offset the higher cost of the new feed by discovering that as animals release less methane, they end up being beefier. “We are basically diverting that carbon to something else… there’s actually a higher weight gain for a lower amount of feed.”
With the seaweed data in, the probiotics experiment has begun. While seaweed inhibits the microbes in the gut from using hydrogen to create methane, the probiotics may change the gut environment so there is less hydrogen available. They should have results in a few months.
But… in the meantime… my mind keeps going back to C-Lock and that metal hooded thingy. Because, as I said, C-Lock is already making money.
I decide to track down the company.
C-Lock is based in South Dakota, and its GreenFeed machine has been on the market for about a dozen years.
“The company was founded and owned by my father, Pat, an atmospheric chemist,” says Scott Zimmerman, C-Lock’s president.
Pat Zimmerman worked for the National Center for Atmospheric Research for about 20 years, and his son says that even back in the 1970s, “scientists started to see the trend of increasing CO2 emissions and become concerned about global warming.”
Pat created and patented a machine that was quickly adopted by the research community. Scott says GreenFeed is the second iteration. “The initial investment from my father was around $500,000.”
They’ve sold 500 units so far, ranging in price from $60,000-$120,000. So… (plugging in the average cost of $90k times 500 into the ol’ calculator) we’re talking $45 million dollars. I’m not sure what the profit margins are, but I’m gonna assume they’re good.
Scott says sales have grown 40% a year, and the company has a backlog of orders through November. “We’re having major problems keeping up with demand.” C-Lock had 39 employees a year ago. Now it has 50, and Scott says they’re still hiring. “We really have a mission to change the world,” he says.
You just never know what’s going to be a multi-million dollar product. A FREAKIN’ COW HOOD THAT MEASURES BURP OUTPUT! Once again, I am in awe of entrepreneurial ingenuity.
Big picture: All of these efforts to reduce cow methane will be for naught if farmers don’t buy in.
“I think the problem in agriculture is the margins are so small,” says Ermias Kebreab. He thinks it will take government subsidies to convince farmers to put something new inside their animals. “It has to make economic sense.”
The FDA has to approve changes in feed, and the U.S. government is always a few years behind other countries in this regard. Still, Ermias thinks we could see some additives on the market this year in places like Brazil, Chile, and maybe even Europe.
He doesn’t think companies like Beyond Meat will have enough global market share to make the need for cattle disappear, and he believes animal meat is needed in developing countries. “It’s not just protein,” he says, “it’s actually the micro-minerals that we need in our bodies, particularly for children.” He believes those things are not easily and affordably replicated in plant-based meat by the developing world.
So Ermias Kebreab is focusing on cows, hopeful that he’s on the cusp of the next big thing in agriculture. “This is really a chance for us to be able to do something, and then, 20 years later, when my kids ask me, ‘What did you do?’, I can say I’ve done something, I’ve tried to help reduce emissions from cows and help climate change around the world.”
For those who don’t believe that climate change is real, the business world may not care. It will follow the money. Over at C-Lock, Scott Zimmerman tells me the company is already developing another product for measuring emissions that will hit the market in a couple of years. “The climate crisis isn’t going anywhere.”