Scientists feed cows 'Kowbucha' probiotic to suppress burps and save the world

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In a research farm in New Zealand, more than a dozen calves line up and eagerly drink their daily milk formula blended with Kowbucha.

The punnily-named probiotic that has been shown to reduce burps from the animals.

Burps that are filled with methane.

The regular feeds are part of a series of trials being carried out by New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra since 2021 to gauge how effective the probiotic is in reducing methane emissions.

The ‘true eureka moment’ came when early trials suggested that calves emit up to 20% less methane when they receive the probiotic supplement, said Shalome Bassett, principal scientist at Fonterra Research and Development Centre.

‘So New Zealand has key targets it needs to meet by 2030 and also by 2050 and this is a great solution that would be easy for farmers to adopt and help us meet some of those key targets,’ said Bassett.

Ongoing trials have shown similar, promising results, she said. If that continues, Fonterra hopes to have Kowbucha sachets in stores by the end of 2024, Bassett said, before farmers have to start paying for animal burps.

Fonterra said it did not yet have any pricing information for the sachets.

New Zealand has pledged to cut biogenic methane emissions by 10% on 2017 levels by 2030 and by up to 47% by 2050.

Today, 11th October, the country’s government confirmed plans to price agricultural long-lived gases and biogenic methane that mainly comes from cow and sheep burps separately, in a plan that farm groups have raised concerns about.

The government also released its proposed plan on agricultural emissions pricing, which when introduced in 2025 will make New Zealand, a large agricultural exporter, the first country to have farmers pay for emissions from livestock. Agricultural emissions account for around half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Ahead of that, farmers, businesses and scientists are working on ways to cut emissions without reducing herd number, given agricultural products make up more than 75% of the country’s goods exports.

Apart from Kowbucha, some feed additives available abroad have shown proven results. Royal DSM’s Bovaer feed additive can reduce methane emissions by 30% in dairy cows and by more in beef cattle.

Fonterra said Kowbucha likely provides an easier solution generally as farmers only have to feed it to calves when they are being reared, given it is expected to have a lasting impact.

New Zealand is also considering whether supplements that have had success abroad can be adapted locally. Much of the science overseas focuses on altering barn animals’ food and is harder to implement in a country where animals largely live outdoors and eat grass.

‘The easiest way to reduce emissions is to reduce production or have less animals basically, so that’s a real challenge when we’re trying to also produce food and keep our export returns at the level that we want them,’ ANZ agricultural economist Susan Kilsby told Reuters.

For Fonterra, however, research remains key as it aims to cap farm emissions at 2015 levels. In addition to Kowbucha, it is also trialling other feed additives and seaweed.

‘It’s definitely important for us to be leading in this space. Our farmers need a solution and New Zealand needs a solution,’ said Bassett.

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