Bovine methane emissions as a factor contributing to the climate crisis have been under the magnifying glass for a long time. In fact, researchers across the globe are looking for ways to reduce the amount of methane escaping to the atmosphere. In practice this means fine-tuning diets, as methane is produced in the rumen, the first of the four stomachs of cows, from where they emit the gas into the air by eructation.
“In other words, it doesn’t exit from the back, which is something that comes as a surprise to many,” chuckles Anni Halmemies-Beauchet-Filleau, a university researcher specialised in cow diets at the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki.
Within an international project studying if the ruminal methane emission can be decreased and milk far composition of dairy cows improved by plant lipids, Halmemies-Beauchet-Filleau has gained promising research results by feeding milled rapeseed and grain in addition to a diet based on AIV feed that is the acid-preserved grass silage traditionally used in Finland, to the roughly 60-strong dairy herd at the University’s teaching and research farm in Helsinki.
The cows whose diet included milled rapeseed emitted as much as one-fifth less methane and one-third less hydrogen compared to cows on the conventional diet, whose protein feed constituted of low-fat rapeseed meal.
Milled rapeseed, rich in oil, also altered the milk fat composition by decreasing the amount of saturated fatty acids in milk by one-fifth. However, no reduction was seen in either milk output or the fat concentration of milk, and there were no changes in the cows’ overall condition compared to the prior diet.
“To cows, methane is purely a by-product, or energy escaping from the feed to the air. Having part of the energy content of feed disappear into thin air doesn’t benefit farmers either,” says Halmemies-Beauchet-Filleau.
The feed formula has been specifically adjusted to Finnish conditions, as globally the basic feed of cows varies greatly outside fibre-rich grass silage. Lipid-rich rapeseed does not function as well with, for example, starch-rich corn silage, as the combination contains an insufficient amount of fibre to support the rumen’s wellbeing. Soy feeds are typically used in other countries, but in Finland they are not used in the diet of dairy cattle.
In Finland, research projects with other oil plants suitable for supplementing grass silage have also been carried out. Anni Halmemies-Beauchet-Filleau mentions false flax, better known as camelina, under the Brassicaceae family of plants.
“It might be easier to farm than turnip rape or rapeseed, since as a more indigenous species it has better resistance against diseases and pests. It also has the potential for yields equivalent to those of turnip rape. In fact, it would be interesting to further investigate the potential of camelina feeds,” Halmemies-Beauchet-Filleau envisions.
Halmemies-Beauchet-Filleau ym. 2019. Rapeseed lipids to decrease saturated fatty acids in milk and ruminal methane emissions of dairy cows. Proceedings of the 10th Nordic Feed Science Conference, sivut 69-73.