This piece of the Misconceptions series an opinion piece, so its structure is a bit different from what you might be used to. But it is still about a statement that has been proven false and we explain (indirectly) why. Third misconception: Industry and transportation are the only sectors responsible for climate change. Truth: Greenhouse gases produced by cattle kept for dairy and meat consumption play a big part as well. An opinion piece by Noémi Szabó.
I’m Daisy, a red pied Holstein-Friesian cow. I come from Switzerland, but I currently live on a dairy farm in Hungary and as an 8-year-old, I consider myself a well-experienced elderly lady.
It’s Tuesday, one of my last workdays. The end is near, I can feel it. Either by natural causes or by slaughter. I’m getting weaker and weaker; I’ve produced barely any milk in the past few days. I don’t fear death, I feel comforted even; knowing that I don’t have to go through the same old dull routine anymore. Overall, I’ve produced about 640 kg of methane, consumed 67,160 kg of dry fodder, and drank 232,000 liters of water. I’ve been quite useful as well of course, as I’ve already produced 99,500 liters of milk for the humans, almost even breaking the record of 100,000 liters. None of us has been able to produce more than that. I still remember the day I exceeded the 25,000 liters average. That was when my life has finally taken a turn for the better! The milkers started to praise me every time I came down from the milking platform. “You did well today too, Daisy!”
But not everyone’s so lucky!
I still remember Bess; my best friend from when I was just a young heifer. She was slaughtered three years ago; one of the worst days of my life. Since she didn’t belong to the dairy herd but the dual-purpose herd (due to her Simmental breed), when she reached a live weight of 750 kg, the humans didn’t care anymore that she had only produced 6,000 liters of milk thus far – her weight and well-marbled meat was all that mattered. I felt melancholy without her, but at the same time grateful for the fact that as a 7-month-old pupil I passed the exam, and they deemed me suitable for milk production. By then I’ve been separated from my mother for 4 months.
The goal of the exam was to test our machine milkability. I was so nervous! Back then the older cows suggested different techniques, such as: “Dilate your udder with muscle exercises!” or “Increase your oxytocin level with happy thoughts to help release the milk!” Since then of course it’s well known that these hypotheses are not supported by science and it all depends on the humans’ breeding work – which let’s admit is pretty scary. The exam itself doesn’t take much time. First there is the udder capacity measurement, then the milk production ratio, and finally the udder index measurement. I passed the exam and was officially inaugurated as a member of the dairy herd. I felt relieved that moment because it meant that it would be possible for me to die a natural death and not by getting ruthlessly slaughtered in my old age.
After initiation all cattle – cows and bulls alike – go to work. Daisy and dual-purpose heifers and cows give milk three times a day and calve once a year, which sometimes includes the artificial insemination ritual. Heifers and cows of the meat-producer herd calve but don’t give milk (except for breastfeeding). It may seem like an easier life, but it’s also much shorter, as it will end just when the cow is in the best shape. And a bull has only two options: he can be slaughtered, or he can work as a breeding bull.
Bess and I enjoyed this period of our lives very much: we were adults and we were free. Apart from the milking sessions we were free to ruminate in the barn and live our social lives. We chatted a lot, joked around and there was constant flirting going on. Bess was very popular, she had white head and legs and her pied yellow hair glowed in different shades depending on how the light fell on her; she was the very embodiment of beauty! She used to be the center of attention and even humans cherished her because she was calm and obedient all the time. So it came as no surprise that microbiologists and agricultural engineers who came during the great environmental movement started working with her.
Bess was the perfect subject, always calm and reliable. And researchers were coming one after another, examining her tip to toe, taking measurements inside and out. Environmentalists were beginning to realize that methane was a threat to their comfortable lifestyle. Their study aimed to determine the amount of methane emitted by us cattle, and then to reduce it. They knew that farm animals are not the only ones responsible for harmful substances that are released into the atmosphere, but their own means of transport as well, but they wanted to examine us and the farming process to avoid being accused of lobbying against transport industry leaders. In the beginning, we didn’t have a clue about what this all meant, but slowly we started to understand what the humans were saying about us. Bess helped me a lot to get the gist of it.
After not only getting the gist but truly understanding the concepts of pollutant emissions and the greenhouse effect, we began to listen carefully – we took note of everything we heard from humans and at night we discussed it with each other. We learned that while ruminating, a fermentative digestion takes place in our foregut, at which point digestive gas, i.e. methane is formed in us. It turned out that 95% of it is released through the mouth, while the rest exits as intestinal gas.
Humans made comparisons as well and voiced the results quite vehemently. An average car emits 4,600 kg of carbon dioxide a year, while a cow or a bull emits 1,750 to 3,000 kg of CO2-equivalent methane. An average Hungarian household (4 persons) consumes 140,000 liters of water a year, while a cow/bull drinks 29,000 liters. We heard statements like these every day. It was shocking to hear about the proportions because I have never thought that our water consumption and the amount of greenhouse gases we emit were such a high burden on the environment.
Eventually, members of the research team concluded that the easiest way to combat the production of harmful gases is to change the composition of our feed. One of our milkers even remarked: “You’re lucky you’re not in Argentina, then you would have a gas trap installed on your back!” We were divided into groups for a few months and had different diets. Some of us were given white clover and perennial ryegrass mixed with bird’s-foot trefoil, while others only ate Italian ryegrass instead of other highly nutritional feed. The tannin in plants supposedly inhibited the digestive activity of the bacteria in our stomachs. I have to admit, we did belch less. Bess wasn’t the only one at this point who was examined, it was all of us. It turned out that the cows most efficient in milk production emit the least methane, regardless of diet. I was very proud of myself, and I knew that this way the dairy herd wasn’t in danger.
The new feed remained, and so did the beef herd! On the one hand, I was happy because I loved my friends from that group, but on the other hand, I couldn’t understand the humans’ decision. All cattle expected that humans would stop eating meat and wouldn’t breed cattle for food anymore because of the results of the studies. But it seemed that they’re unable to give up their eating habits, so they were satisfied with somewhat reducing our methane emission. Thus, climate change continues to threaten everyone, humans and cattle alike.
Source of featured image: Gergely Horta
Original article here.
Translation by Ági Sturcz