Cow burps have been slammed as a major cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) – but how much methane is produced and can it be reduced? These are the questions being addressed by agri-tech start-up Zelp, which has developed a way to capture methane emissions and oxidise them in the field. Zelp was established by two brothers whose family runs a cattle ranch in Argentina.
Methane correlates with feed efficiency. An animal that is producing excess gas could be wasting 5-12 per cent of their feed energy, which could otherwise be used for generating milk or mass. A sudden reduction in emissions can also provide an indication that the animal is unwell.
Zelp co-founder Francisco Norris is a design technologist, while his brother Patricio is an expert in natural gas and methane treatment. They were brought up on a family farm, which rears 1,500 animals, so have significant understanding of the issues facing farmers looking to improve sustainability and profitability.
Francisco explains: “The UN FAO estimates that beef and dairy production is set to rise by 70 per cent over the next 30 years. Already agriculture accounts for one-tenth of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gas, so we see methane production as a growing issue.
“However, the majority of livestock production in Argentina and also the UK is on grassland, so it is not possible to adjust the feed to reduce emissions. We have developed a technology that can detect when the cow burps – exhaling methane at high purity – and captures the gas to convert it to CO2 and water, reducing its global warming potential by a factor of 85 times.
“It is important that the capture device does not impact the cow’s behaviour, so we have been experimenting to devise the best method – which started as a type of nose-clip, and is now a wearable that sits comfortably on the muzzle of the cow. The idea is when cattle are grazing, data from the device, called a ‘node’, transmits automatically to a gateway, which sends the data to the cloud. We can then access the data remotely, allowing a detailed picture to be built up of the way methane is being produced, learning about efficiency and animal behaviour as well as detecting disease and trends.”
Zelp is completing a series of trials in the lab and field and anticipates that farmers will be able to use the information generated to improve productivity and decrease GHG emissions.
Francisco continues: “Methane production can give farmers a lot of information on how efficient individual cows are at digesting food and converting that energy into milk or mass. Also it can highlight health issues with the animal, a failure to thrive or bacterial infection.
“Before Zelp it was not possible to access this information. We are looking at how methane production differs between different breeds and the impact of diet. Potentially we will be able to correlate the emissions to heat, oestrous and calving and to a number of different value adds for the producer.”
Zelp has gained $1.2 million in funding and is working with one of the biggest beef processors in Europe to conduct its trials and develop an app. The company presented some of its recent data at REAP 2019.