The physicist working to reduce cow belches

When cows belch methane they make a big contribution to global warming. In a project designed to measure methane emissions from cows, Tekna member Øyvind Nordbø is applying his maths and physics background in a search amongst tens of thousands of combinations of genetic material to pinpoint the cows that burp the least, so that Norwegian farmers can breed them.

Climate discharges from agriculture

Of total climate gas emissions in Norway, which in 2017 amounted to 52.7 million tonnes, 4.5 million tonnes derived from agriculture. This means that climate discharges from agriculture account for 8.5 per cent of total Norwegian climate gas emissions. Half of this derives from methane emissions from ruminants, such as cattle and sheep. In other words, the methane emissions of these animals account for more than 4 per cent of total emissions of climate gases in Norway.

And believe it or not, most of this is emitted in the form of burps. Øyvind Nordbø of breeding and genetics company Geno at Hamar works on selecting cows genetically on the basis of sought-after properties. Approximately 20 per cent of the variation in methane emissions by cows is genetically determined. A major project has now been implemented to measure methane emissions by Norwegian Red cattle, and statistical models will be created to determine which animals are genetically disposed to emitting less methane in their belches.

Norwegian cows are the “greenest” in the world

“We have just over 200 000 milk cows in Norway. During the course of 3-4 years we should have succeeded in analysing sufficient data to tell us which animals have desirable properties in terms of climate gas emissions. When we have that information, these animals can become part of the breeding programmes of the farmers,” says Øyvind Nordbø. He adds that the average Norwegian cow is already “greener” than the average cow in other countries. “We farm intensely in Norway – the cows grow faster and thus have less time to emit gas than slow-growing animals. What’s more, they are highly efficient in terms of energy use. Milk production is far more energy efficient than meat production, and in Norway we generally use the same animals to give us milk and meat.”

While he was pursuing his Master’s in mathematics, physics and information science, Øyvind Nordbø never imagined that these disciplines could be applied in such a practical way as working with breeding and genetics. However, when he added a doctorate in biological physics, this idea was no longer so remote.

Heidner biocluster

“At Hamar, a number of companies and institutions have combined to form a biocluster known as Heidner. I submitted an open application to Heidner and was offered a job on a project to implement genomic selection in pig and milk cow breeding,” he says. This was 5 ½ years ago and Øyvind Nordbø now spends 50 per cent of his time at as a researcher at Geno and 50 per cent at Norsvin.

Øyvind Nordbø doubts that it will be possible to achieve the national climate targets through breeding alone, but the objective is to breed cattle that by 2030 emit 20 per cent less methane per production unit.

Belches measured using special equipment

“We are now signing agreements with individual farmers to establish high-tech cowsheds in which we install methane measuring equipment as part of the feeding machine. This is expensive equipment manufactured in the US, costing three quarters of a million kroner per unit. All the animals in the experiments are genotyped to establish the precise links between genetics and the methane measurement results.”

“We plan to purchase more equipment over time and install it in additional herds. Our ambition is to perform methane registrations on 3000 animals in 50 herds per year,” says Øyvind Nordbø.


Published: Monday, February 4, 2019