Artificial cow Bertha provides reliable genetic data

Bertha may not look like a cow, but she functions in the same way. And in doing so she could provide information that will facilitate the breeding of cows which produce less greenhouse gas.

Methane emissions from cows are a major environmental issue worldwide. Approximately one fifth of the greenhouse gases produced by human civilization comes from cattle farming. Not every cow produces the same amount of methane, however, so cattle breeders hope that to be able to breed cows that produce less greenhouse gas in the future.

Measuring methane emissions

Measuring the level of methane emissions from a cow is not easy. The standard method is the respiration cell: a room in which the cow is kept, and where all the gases that are absorbed and emitted are measured. This is a costly type of research and takes animals out of their normal environment. It would be better to develop methods which can measure the amount of methane produced in the shed.

Nico Ogink is working with PhD student Liansun Wu to develop such techniques. “We mainly hope to find measuring methods that can determine the amount of methane produced by the cow in the cubicle.” These could involve, for instance, extracting and analysing the air around the cow, but then it would be unsure whether the extracted air would also contain methane produced by neighbouring cattle. Together with his colleagues Ogink developed a way to verify the reliability of measuring methods: the artificial cow Bertha.

Testing measuring methods

Cows produce methane in the rumen and the greenhouse gas then enters the environment via the cow’s respiration. “This creates major peaks in emissions,” says Ogink. Artificial cow Bertha simulates methane production in the rumen, and breathes like an actual cow. But there is one major difference: “For Bertha we know exactly how much methane she produces, which allows us to test measuring methods.” These methods can eventually provide the data on methane production required by breeders to map the genes that determine methane emissions.