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La Vache Qui Pête: Cows and Climate Change

For many, the words “climate change” bring to mind black clouds rising from factory smokestacks, buses idling at streetlights, and oil spills sticking in fishes’ gills. Man-made pollutants, though, are far from the only influence on the health of the environment. Another big culprit is—to put it oh-so-delicately—the gas and waste of cows. Yep—mainly belches and manure, but cow flatulence, too. Now that that’s out in the open…

Methane is a greenhouse gas, meaning that it traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere—an effect that causes, among other things, a rise in the average temperature of the planet. California legislators, in response to cows’ role in climate change, are pushing for further regulation of the dairy industry, seeking to cut methane emissions. Dairy farmers aren’t thrilled at the prospect of this tall order.

The CEO of Western United Dairymen, Anja Raudabaugh, explains that the problem is not just overregulation—it is also a matter of bovine biology. “By nature’s design,” she says, “[cows] pass lots of gas… Quite frankly, we want them to expel gas so they don’t explode.”

The California Air Resources Board has a few suggestions in mind: To take hold of the root of the problem, they could require different feeding practices or changes in breeding to naturally limit the gas cows need to expel. Or they could regulate the back end of the operation, asking farmers to invest in anaerobic digesters rather than storing manure in lagoons.

Anaerobic digesters, using an oxygen-less environment, convert manure’s volatile acids into biogas that can be burned to generate heat and electricity, allowing for a reduction of odor and the production of renewable energy in addition to just cutting emissions.

Some larger farms have already implemented anaerobic digesters with great results. Crave Brothers in Wisconsin uses energy produced by a digester to power the farm, and enough electricity is left over to power 300 homes in the area—which is a whole lot! Digesters are also a costly investment, though, and legally requiring them could put some smaller farms out of business.

At present, the initial cost of implementing a digester system ranges from $1000 to $2000 per cow—a hefty sum for a small farm with limited output—and maintaining the system adds to that total. While using the energy produced for heating can save money down the line, the burden of capital cost is, at this point, too much for many small farms to take on. Reducing emissions is, of course, a noble goal, but many dairy farmers object to such a heavy regulatory hand. Before implementing such a requirement, many feel, more research should go into finding a financially viable way to use digesters on farms with smaller herds and yields.

Caroline Fenn

While Caroline Fenn’s primary pursuit is an M.A. in publishing from Emerson College, she thinks almost as frequently about whether burrata or Brie would be her desert island cheese. She comes to Boston via Connecticut and Rhode Island and also loves writing, coffee shops, and Fountains of Wayne.