This week produced specific evidence of the difference between growing up in the suburbs and on a dairy farm.
For last Tuesday’s Opinion page, I wrote an editorial about research into whether the use of seaweed from the Atlantic Coast would reduce the amount of methane that cattle produce.
I based the editorial on a story from The Associated Press, which said cattle are responsible for 25 percent of the methane released in the United States.
Given the amount of oil and gas exploration that goes on in this country, I found that figure way too high. There are millions of cattle in America; but there are plenty of wells venting excess methane, too.
Assuming that the gas was coming from the cows’ rear ends, I wrote, “That’s some impressive tooting.” It was a fun sentence — witty and to the point.
A couple of e-mails later, this child of suburbia can report that his livestock education has improved, and I was wrong about where the methane’s coming from.
Charlie Smith, publisher of the Columbian Progress, ran my editorial last Thursday, and he received an e-mail from a reader named Marvin Adams. From the e-mail you can tell that Adams knows a lot more about cattle and their methane than I do — although it must be noted that is not a very high bar to top.
Here’s what he wrote:
“One glaring bit of what is blatantly incorrect news that is reported over and over by the media is the assertion that cow (toots) are the source of huge amounts of methane being released into the atmosphere. ... I must comment on this point because it is a major source of irritation to me.
“Although cow flatulence does contain methane, 95% of methane coming from ruminant animals comes from a process called “eructation,” which in general terms is belching.
“This is a result of gases produced during rumination (bacterial breakdown of animal feed in ruminant animals), including methane. Cows, sheep, goats, deer and numerous other animals do this as a normal part of digestion, although it is much worse in domestic livestock because we feed them so much.
“Also, the seaweed being used to suppress the production of methane in ruminants acts in the rumen, not the intestines as was stated in the editorial. I realize that many references to the study in question refer to the location of activity of the seaweed as the “gut,” which is typically a reference to the intestine, so the incorrect assumption is understandable.
“However, ‘gut’ to scientists also refers to the entire alimentary canal, which includes all organs of the digestive tract, including the rumen in the digestive tract of a cow.”
I don’t recall ever hearing the words “rumen” or “ruminants,” although maybe I did on one of my ventures to Walthall County dairy farms when I was a reporter. “Eructation” was a new one, too.
I thought the most interesting item in Adams’ e-mail was that cattle are producing all that methane because we feed them so much.
He attached links to three stories, and one of them, from a 2018 story in the MIT Technology Review, included this gem of a headline: “Seaweed could make cows burp less methane and cut their carbon hoofprint.”
Charlie must know Mr. Adams, because his reply, which he copied to me as well, was clever, too: “Jack’s a fastidious reporter who will want to make sure he gets his belches and flatulence straight in the future.”
Charlie thus accomplished the difficult task of using the words “fastidious,” “belches” and “flatulence” in a single sentence. That is an award-winning achievement, nearly as good as the MIT headline about the carbon hoofprint.
The AP story was based on research in New England, but the MIT story focused on cattle in California. According to MIT, they really are spewing out tons of methane:
“Each year, livestock production pumps out greenhouse gases with the equivalent warming effect of more than 7 gigatons of carbon dioxide, roughly the same global impact as the transportation industry.”
So there you have it: One more useful nugget of information from the hometown newspaper, whose editor is glad to correct an error, especially when the correction leads to a column with a little bit of humor in it.