AUSTRALIA: Scientists aim to solve digestion problems for cows
While scientists in Melbourne believe that cows take too long eating and digesting grass, researchers at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) are concerned about the effects of their flatulence on the environment.
Both teams are now working independently with the latest in scientific technology to solve the problems, and bump up farm profits at the same time.
At the Co-operative Research Centre for Molecular Plant Breeding, in Melbourne's La Trobe University, Russell McInnes is using genetic technology to produce grass that is easier to chew. He has focused on a plant compound called lignin, which gives strength to the structure and slows plant growth, and plans to switch off the gene that creates it.
"Lignin binds tightly with the cellulose which the cows want. That's where the cows have trouble [digesting grass] - they have trouble separating the lignin and cellulose," he explained to the Advertiser.
In contrast, by turning that same gene up, McInnes explained that it would be possible to create more durable and slower-growing turf.
At the CSIRO meanwhile, researchers have focused their attention on reducing the amount of methane cows (and sheep) produce as part of their normal digestive process.
Grazing animals produce around 14% of the greenhouse gas emissions in Australia and Dr Rob Kelly, of CSIRO Livestock Industries, explained: "Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas - around 21 times more potent in greenhouse terms than carbon dioxide."
Kelly has now developed a vaccine that he hopes will cut down on the animals' excessive wind by up to 20%. A field trial to take place between 2005-2012, and involving a million cattle and two million sheep, will determine whether the vaccine is successful in preventing the methanogenic archae organisms, which live in the animals' stomachs and produce methane as they break down food.
Kelly added that the energy cows use up as they produce methane will also be put to better use after the vaccine, so "we also expect there will be some modest gains in productivity on these animals' live weight".
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