Integrated Human Practices
During the beginning stages of our project we had a lot of questions about what path would be best to take. We had a meeting with Dr. Samodha Fernando; a leading expert in the role of the microbial food chain in methanogenesis. He knows the ins and outs of this industry, and thankfully he was able to help us narrow down our project options.
Dr. Fernando gave us information that majorly changed the direction and implementation of our project. Our team knew that we wanted to incorporate E. coli with previously tested feed additives that have been proven to lower methane emissions. An original idea was to have E. coli produce sulfate within the microbiome of the cow, but Dr. Fernando warned us that using sulfate causes a buildup of hydrogen sulfide that kills the cow if it is given the doses needed to actually reduce methane emissions. Because of this information we avoided this option. Another option we wanted to pursue was using 3-nitrooxypropanol (3NOP), but Fernando warned us that Canada has already patented the use of 3-nitrooxypropanol for reducing methane in cattle. This was very good to know, because if we would have pursued this route then our project would never have been marketable.
Dr. Fernando also gave us major pieces of information regarding the function of methanogens. This information was integrated back into our project, because now we know what pitfalls to avoid. One major thing that Dr. Fernando mentioned was that the methanogens' main function was to recycle nadh. If the methanogens are killed then something else in the microbiome will have to perform this function. It could be more inefficient if another microbe takes this job. This was good to know because we would not want our project to cost farmers more money on feed. He also mentioned that instead of killing methanogens you can divert hydrogen away from them so that less methane is produced. Monitoring the acetate:propionate ratio in the rumen is a good way to know how much methane the cow is producing. Propionate is a competitor for hydrogen so it diverts hydrogen away from the methanogens. If the ratio of acetate is higher than propionate then that is a good indication that there is a lot of methane being produced. All of this information about methanogens was good to know because caution must be taken when changing the microbiome of an animal. We did not want to harm the cow's microbiome in any way because unlike humans the microbes of cattle provide 70% of the metabolic energy that the ruminant gets.
On top of all of this information from Dr. Fernando that we have integrated into our project, he was also able to point us in the direction of other possible connections. He provided us with contacts to the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and the Nebraska Cattlemen, as well as science outreach events at the Lincoln Children’s Museum.
Animal Science Meeting
On July 17th, the team met with Dr. James MacDonald, researcher in Ruminant Nutrition, and Dr. Krehbiel, Animal Science Department Head, about our project and were asked questions we hadn’t really considered before. The animal science faculty were able to give us practical information on how to potentially market our product to ranchers, how to approach the subject of climate change in a sensible fashion, and related our research to their experiences in the field to avoid pitfalls. They also sponsored us and allowed us to visit one of their research feed lots (seen in the next section).
Feedlot Field Trip
On July 21st, our team went to the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center to take a tour of the high-tech University of Nebraska-Lincoln cattle feedlot. Our tour guide, Dr. Jim MacDonald, is a researcher in the field of ruminant nutrition, and took us to view multiple parts of the feed infrastructure that supports cattle development.
Our first stop was the feedlot itself, where cattle were kept and fed via trough. We were fortunate enough to see the feed being dropped off by truck. Here he discussed the setup of the cattle waste drainage systems, and also techniques of how cattle were kept cool in the summer sun by spray trucks.
Truck deposits feed in trough.
Our next destination was the feed storage facility. Different components of the cattle feed were stored in huge loading bays, after which they were combined, transported and then fed to the cattle. Dr. MacDonald explained how ruminant animals are able to easily digest corn waste solids from ethanol plants, and shared how different feed components are added to balance protein, fat, and carbohydrate intakes for the ruminal microbiome.
Dr. MacDonald holds two feed components side by side.
For our last stop, we were taken to the methane measurement facility; one of a handful of its kind in the world. This facility is an airtight feed facility with extremely sensitive methane detection systems. Cattle in this barn are fed different feed additives along with their diet, and then the ambient methane is measured by these systems to a very high accuracy.
Methane detector in white towards top.
On June 29th, a successful partnership was created with Licor after we presented our project to Dr. Doc Chaves and his team. We received lots of feedback regarding our presentation more so than our project. He commented that we should focus on the bigger picture first in order to capture the companies’ attention and mention the effects our project has on a cow’s meat, taste, or milk yield since companies might be more interested in those aspects. His communication advice was heeded and so for future presentations we plan on tailoring what we say based on our audience. For example, farmers or the beef industry may be more concerned about the efficiency loss through methanogenesis and less concerned about the environmental degradation due to methane. When we met with Nebraska Cattleman, we started our conversation with efficiency instead of environmental issues.
While looking for funding for the team, we got into contact with Andrew Uden from Quantified Ag, a company that works to simplify cattle health management. A meeting was set up with Andrew Uden, one of the Co-Founders. On June 28th, we presented our project and he was quite interested in our idea. He suggested we look into patenting and gave us other contact information. He also gave us insight through his own experiences into what farmers' common concerns are when it comes to new cutting edge technology. Quantified Ag’s product is an ear tag for cattle that monitors physical signs given off by the cattle and sends data back that tells the farmer if they may be sick or not. He exclaimed to us that many farmers had concerns with his product because they feared that the government would take the data gained by these ear tags and use it against them. This showed us that farmers have a big distrust of the government. When marketing or implementing our product, we want to have as little government involvement as possible, because it may make farmers nervous if changing the microbiome of their cattle meant that there would be regular checkups from the government.
To get a better understanding of the farming culture of Nebraska and how different people would perceive a project like ours, we met with Jessie Herrmann, the Director of Legal & Regulatory Affairs, of Nebraska Cattlemen. Nebraska Cattlemen is an organization that represents cattle producers in Nebraska. They seemed to be very interested in the project and the implications for the increase in efficiency in meat production. In the meeting, we talked about how a product like this could be marketed to the larger demographic of farmers across the nation. They informed us that this demographic would be more interested in the increase in beef production instead of the decrease in methane emissions. We received a sponsorship from Nebraska Cattlemen and started our partnership.