Canadian agricultural scientists may be moving one step closer to creating a viable food additive for cattle which can reduce methane emissions by as much as 50 per cent, says Karen Beauchemin, a research scientist at the Lethbridge Research Station of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
“We’ve really looked at management issues, diet and animal variability in terms of genetics,” says Beauchemin. “A lot of these are long-term strategies. But one exciting development is we have been working with a particular compound which acts as methane inhibitor and is a potential feed additive.”
While some natural methane-reducing compounds identified in one variety of seaweed from Australia have been making news lately, Beauchemin says those sources are potentially many years away from commercial development, and have not had any extensive large-scale animal trials as yet.
Whereas the feed additive her researchers having been working on the past six years is heading to large-scale trials this winter, and could potentially be ready for the commercial market relatively soon.
“We have been looking at synthesized compounds,” says Beauchemin. “The one which shows the most promise is 3-nitrooxypropanol (3NOP). This was a compound identified by DSM Nutritional Products. They are the biggest company in the world which makes vitamins.
“That compound has been very effective in smaller scale feeding studies over a longer period of time to find out what effects it has on dry matter intact of the animal, growth rate and feed efficiency.
“In both studies we did the results were very positive. In terms of methane reduction, all other factors being equal, we’re looking at a between 30 and 60 per cent reduction in methane output from these cattle.”
The Lethbridge Research Station’s smaller scale studies have shown no detrimental effect on the animals’ health to date, and Beauchemin says 3NOP breaks down naturally in the cows’ rumen.
“This is a synthesized compound which blocks the formation of methane, but when it is digested it just results in compounds you would normally see in the animal,” she says.
Beauchemin says the large-scale trials, which started in November and will continue until next July, will test the product on approximately 15,000 animals at a feedlot near Nanton. She expects those trials to bear out what the small-scale trials have already concluded, but these latest research results should be definitive toward greenlighting a commercial product.
“The goal of the study is to document, on a large-scale, the feasibility of using this additive to reduce methane and the effects of it on animal performance,” Beauchemin states. “We are going to be looking at barley-based, backgrounding diets, and corn for the American market.”
If the trials successfully lead to a viable commercial product, the 3NOP feed additive could be a game changer in terms of the discussion around greenhouse gas emissions from livestock operations, says Beauchemin. She admits however, there are some factors which may somewhat muddy the waters for these extremely positive results going forward.
“The major issue is we don’t know the cost as yet,” says Beauchemin. “There is the expense of producing and marketing the compound, but the company hasn’t said what the cost would be; so that’s a limitation.
“The other thing is you have got to recognize this is only, so far, targeting animals which are in confinement feeding. There are some kinds of feeders you could put out (for pasture grazing), in theory, but that is a challenge which we have yet to address in the research.”