Measuring methane: Can it evaluate cattle feed efficiency and overall health?

Farm Forum

PIEDMONT, S.D. – Will cattlemen someday measure their animals’ breaths and belches to determine feed efficiency, or whether they’re getting sick?

Pat and Scott Zimmerman think so.

They are principals of C-Lock Inc. in Piedmont, S.D., which has developed and is marketing a system called GreenFeed – a sort of computerized “breathalyzer” that measures the methane and carbon dioxide output in cattle and other ruminants. They say the equipment can be used to monitor cattle health and efficiency.

Pat, the elder Zimmerman, is a range science and atmospheric scientist with nearly 40 years of business and academic experience and owns C-Lock. His son Scott, who holds a civil engineering bachelor’s degree and a master’s in water resource engineering, serves as its director of engineering. Mike Billars, an electrical engineer, designs circuitry and writes programming for the systems. Zimmerman’s other son, Tom, works in component purchasing, billing and budgeting.

GreenFeed machines have been tested in the scientific market for about a year and the company has been aggressively promoting them in the past year.

A French scientist is using a GreenFeed system to help develop more feed-efficient beef bulls. A beef feedlot researcher in New South Wales, Australia, is using the machines to help develop better feed formulas. A Pennsylvania State University researcher is studying a GreenFeed system to help cut methane emissions with the ultimate goal of increasing feed efficiency.

Beyond the science market, Zimmerman thinks his machines have a place in feedlots and in purebred livestock operations in the Upper Great Plains.

Family of inventors

Pat Zimmerman, 62, grew up on a wheat farm in eastern Washington. He was exposed early to the idea of inventing things on the farm. His father developed a wheat seeder that he collected royalties on when it was eventually built by John Deere.

Zimmerman, the oldest of four children, went on to Washington State University in Pullman. He got his bachelor’s degree in environmental science and zoology and a master’s degree in environmental science, with an emphasis on air pollution research. Zimmerman served as a WSU faculty member for about six years.

In 1979, Pat went on to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. He was there for 18 years and commuted to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he picked up a doctorate in range science.

In 1997, he took a job as director for the Institute for Atmospheric Science at the South Dakota State School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, S.D. There, Zimmerman taught meteorology and invented what he called the C-Lock System. The system was a way to evaluate what farmers and ranchers were accomplishing in carbon accounting and to help them get paid in an emerging carbon market, which later dissipated.

C-Lock was incorporated in 2003.

On to GreenFeed

GreenFeed is based on the principle that if you measure the metabolic gases from a ruminant animal, you can determine its feed efficiency. The same gases identify certain cattle illnesses before symptoms can be seen.

From the outside, the system looks much like a standard feeder that supplies mineral concentrates to cattle in a pasture. But it does much more.

GreenFeed uses a tone and a light to draw an animal to pellet bait. When the cow sticks its head into the machine, it is recognized by its radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tag. Each cow is lured and tested three to five times a day for a period of three to seven minutes each time. If the RFID tag indicates the animal has already visited, it gets no feed and leaves the machine.

The GreenFeed equipment measures emissions from the mouth and nose. Those two orifices produce 92 to 95 percent of methane emissions from cattle. Cow flatulence accounts for the rest, but it isn’t studied in the GreenFeed system.

Eighteen sensors in the system are coordinated to verify that the animal is properly in position for the machine to collect methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2). A cow produces both gases from regular exhaling and belching. A cow typically belches every 40 seconds.

Data is stored and transmitted every hour through a cell phone account. It goes to a computer server at C-Lock headquarters, where it is processed using automated algorithms and analyzed. Enough on-board storage is in the system to accumulate more than a year’s data, in case there is a transmission interruption.

The original data is logged into C-Lock’s archive system and can’t be changed. Clients, of course, can recover their own data and manipulate it any way they wish. Viewed remotely, the C-Lock personnel in Piedmont can see the systems live and can push a button to make bait feed drop, if necessary, or make other adjustments.

“We can log into any system in the world,” Scott Zimmerman says. During an Agweek interview, he checks on a system in Umea, Sweden. “It sends automatic e-mail alerts” for standard maintenance, he explains.

Ruminant reaction

The ruminant digestive system is more accurately thought of as a “reaction vessel,” Pat Zimmerman says.

In the rumen, bacteria act on the grass the cow eats. The cow digests the products of the metabolism of the bacteria and the bacterial protein. “That’s why you can feed a cow with 5 or 7 percent protein feed and make a steak with 22 percent (protein),” Zimmerman says.

Methane produced in the process indicates how much the animal ate and what’s going on in the rumen, and farmers can see efficiencies, much like drivers can see efficiencies of an automobile by using its gauges, Zimmerman says.

“It represents a significant energy loss from an animal,” he says. “If you could minimize methane production and still continue the metabolic pathway that occurs when grass is digested, an animal could gain a half a pound in extra weight gain per day.”

There is a direct correlation between dry matter intake and methane production, Zimmerman says.

If the amount of methane emitted from an animal should suddenly drop, GreenFeed will notice it. That can indicate a health problem – such as acidosis – long before the problem is visible. Similarly, information can come from monitoring carbon dioxide, which is produced by muscles and bacterial aerobic metabolism.

“Monitoring methane can help breeders identify high-RFI (residual feed intake) animals and it can determine if feed quality changes over time,” Zimmerman says. “You can tell if you’re missing nutrients or if the ratios of specific nitrogen compounds to carbons aren’t right. It’s all reflected in methane and C02.”

Zimmerman thinks feedlot operators eventually will use the machines to determine when animals have passed peak efficiencies in rate of gain. That might help producers time their marketing, among other things.

“I think that if we make enough of these, we can make them for about the same as a computerized concentrate feeder,” Zimmerman says. “Right now, concentrate is the most expensive thing for a pastured animal. You can’t control how much each animal gets with a standard feeder. We can feed each animal exactly the right amount. We can tell when it’s the right concentrate, or whether you need to add more fiber because the pasture is getting depleted.”

Across the world

Eighteen GreenFeed machines already are in the field, including eight in the U.S. The Zimmermans say a total of 30 likely will be in the field by mid-2013.

C-Lock tested some of its first machines at South Dakota State University’s Cottonwood Experiment Station in the fall of 2010. SDSU doesn’t own one, but GreenFeed systems are being used by researchers at Michigan State University and Penn State University.

In one university dairy study, researchers are looking at methane output and its relationship to acidosis. The malady can affect the feed efficiency in the cow’s first milking cycle and the animal’s ability to get pregnant in its second milking cycle. Another dairy scientist is looking at whether methane testing can indicate a mastitis problem in dairy cows, 30 hours before the symptoms are confirmed in an electrical conductivity test of the milk, Zimmerman says.

The cost of the systems varies by how they will be used and how they are installed. For example, the University of New Hampshire has a trailer unit that goes over the road or can be moved from pasture to pasture. That $70,000 system runs on solar panels.

“All of our stuff is engineered so it only takes about 50 watts to run it,” Zimmerman says. “That’s not much more than a nightlight. You just drive it to a pasture, unhook it and it runs. Everything is wireless.” The data analysis is free for the first year, but there is a charge after that, negotiated individually depending on service and warranty.

To compare, a cart system used in a dairy research project might be as little as $40,000, Scott Zimmerman says.

The Zimmermans are anxious to make the systems affordable for agricultural producers. They are looking for a feedlot cooperator to use one on a lease basis. Pat Zimmerman says feedlots can use it to make the transition from grazing into corn-rich diets more smoothly and to decrease mortality.

“They’d pay a monthly fee to sustain GreenFeed so the capital costs could be reduced,” Zimmerman says. “We’d be willing to help share the cost to get them to use it because we know we will be able to help them save money and save animals in the long run.”

Vern Anderson, a North Dakota State University beef researcher with the Carrington Research Extension Center, says he hasn’t seen the research that indicates the strong correlation between methane output and feed efficiency, but thinks it’s worth looking into. He says if it is truly a way to sort cattle by efficiency, it would be beneficial. He says it could have a benefit for purebred producers, but feed efficiency traits would have to be combined with other performance traits – such as reproduction and meat marbling – to know the answers.

“New technology takes time for people to pay attention,” Anderson says.

Time and technology

Prior to GreenFeed, Pat Zimmerman says techniques to study methane from cows have been accurate, but not practical for either farmers or researchers. He should know.

In the 1990s, Zimmerman and colleagues at Washington State University developed one of the classical methods of collecting methane information from pastured cattle. That system uses a bolus – a large, egg-shaped brass pill – containing the chemical sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). It’s dubbed the SF6 tracer test and is still used by some researchers in the world, but is labor-intensive and too expensive for some applications, Zimmerman says.

A separate method is to put cattle in an open circuit chamber for 24 hours and measure the gas production every four minutes. That’s impractical for many applications.

GreenFeed is far more practical and could have important benefits for the environment, Zimmerman says.

“The impact of methane emissions of one cow is roughly equivalent to the greenhouse emissions from an automobile in a year,” Zimmerman says. There’s roughly a billion cows in the world and the U.S. has the highest number.

He notes that a global initiative to reduce the emissions from dairy cattle started two years ago. The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy is working on Cow of the Future, a project that aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from dairy cattle by 20 percent by the year 2020, Zimmerman says. One ton of methane is roughly equivalent to 25 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in terms of greenhouse gas effects.

New, expanding uses

C-Lock is privately held, the Zimmermans say. The company broke even last year, serving only the scientific market. Zimmerman expects it will make a profit in 2013. They say there are other uses for the system, including delivering vaccines and doing tests for pneumonia or lung disease. Some feed companies are looking at it to help formulate feed to quantitatively show advantages.

Zimmerman says the machines could be used to study the effects of distiller’s grain. a corn ethanol product.

An Iowa user of GreenFeed is equipping it with sensors for measuring hydrogen sulfide and molecular hydrogen. Excessive sulfur from groundwater and processing can show up in distiller’s grain with toxicity. “We think our system could really lessen that risk,” Zimmerman says. Some Mexican purchasers of distiller’s grains have contacted the company about equipment.

Measuring a bull’s feed efficiency through methane production is a lot quicker than breeding it to a cow and measuring feed efficiency of offspring, Zimmerman says.

“Feed efficiency is a heritable trait,” he says. The important thing isn’t the amount of methane per unit of time, but the amount of methane per pound of product – beef or milk. “Cattle on a hot diet with lots of starch produce a lot of methane in a short amount of time, but not nearly as much per pound of beef as a grass-fed animal because they gain weight quicker.”

Twenty years from now, Zimmerman predicts that every feedlot might have a GreenFeed system, or at least that level of technology. After cattle, he thinks the system will be adapted for hogs.

“Maybe even chickens,” he says.