N&H TOP LINE: Oregano may reduce methane in cow burps

Project aims to reduce methane emissions from dairy cows by up to 25%. ALSO: Planning for disease outbreaks; Suffolk sheep return to University of Idaho.

February 8, 2016

7 Min Read
N&H TOP LINE: Oregano may reduce methane in cow burps

In a new project, researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark — in cooperation with Organic Denmark and a number of commercial partners — will be examining whether the addition of organic oregano to cattle feed can reduce the production of methane in the rumen and, thus, emissions of methane gas.

When ruminants digest their feed, methane is formed as a natural byproduct of the microbial process in the rumen, and since methane is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, there is a need to devise methods to reduce such emissions from cattle.

Methane production can be reduced by, for example, adding fat or nitrate to the feed or by increasing the starch content and improving the feed quality. However, for organic dairy farmers, these remedies are either not permissible or are already being used, thus creating a need for other solutions.

"Oregano — especially the species Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare ssp hirtum) — is known for its high content of essential oils and its antimicrobial effect, and the plant is a natural tool for reducing methane production in the rumen," Kai Grevsen, project manager and senior researcher in the Aarhus department of food science, said. "The goal is to show that we can reduce methane emissions from dairy cows by up to 25% by adding oregano to the feed."

As part of the project, the researchers will initially test the effect of supplementing oregano to rumen-fistulated and intestinal-fistulated dairy cows in special methane chambers. They will also examine how the cows react to different amounts of oregano.

The four-year project will also investigate how best to grow organic oregano and whether to process the plant either as hay or silage.

"To succeed with the oregano project in practice, it is essential that we develop a product that has both a high yield and a high concentration of essential oils. We also need to develop an organic farming concept and breed new varieties with higher concentrations of the oils," Grevsen said, adding that he and his colleagues also collaborate with an organic herb producer who makes fields and a drying facility available for part of the experiment.

Climate-friendly milk. Although the climate is going to be the main beneficiary of the project, the hope is that the project will also benefit arable land and dairy farmers. Previous studies indicate that oregano can improve the milk's fatty acid composition, and the project participants will be researching this aspect as well as the milk’s flavor.

"It's also important to remember that the project is relevant not only for organic milk producers. Should the results be positive, they can be implemented on all cattle farms — conventional and organic — so there is a really large potential," Grevsen said.


Planning for a disease outbreak?

Computer scientists and statisticians at Colorado State University are turning disease outbreak planning exercises into a game. They’re creating new software that can predict, simulate and analyze a major disease outbreak — all in the form of an intuitive, multi-player game.

Researchers led by Shrideep Pallickara, associate professor of computer science in Colorado State University's College of Natural Sciences, are in year one of a three-year, $2.04 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate. The project is aimed at connecting the latest, greatest computing and data management technology to the fight against widespread livestock disease.

Livestock disease outbreaks can spread far and fast across the U.S. From foot and mouth disease in cattle to avian influenza, the illnesses can wreak havoc on animals, the food system and the economy.

Pallickara said, "When a disease breaks out, you need to know: How severe is it? How long will it last? How many field personnel do you need? What are the economic consequences? How will commodity prices be affected? What will happen if you start vaccinating?"

Computer scientists are used to dealing with hundreds or thousands of variables and running what-if scenarios. DHS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Epidemiology & Animal Health (CEAH) and other outbreak specialists such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency respond to emergencies by identifying a handful of scenarios. Then, they can change parameters for each scenario — adjusting variables such as disease biology and virulence — to help determine action plans for things like vaccine stockpiles, vaccine efficacy and deploying field personnel.

However, that whole process can take hours or days; meanwhile, the disease spreads.

"In these cases, sometimes hours elapse between modifying your scenario, running it and getting your response back," Pallickara said. "What we do instead is, given a national-scale outbreak scenario, we generate 100,000 variants, run them in a computing cloud that generates several-billion files and then do the analytics on all this data. So, even if a user is trying to change something in real time, we have already learned what will happen. This involves a lot of back-end processing, which allows us to make real-time predictions."

Group gaming and why it works. Disease planners often work in isolation and don't understand each other's rationale or how decisions affect one another. This project tackles that problem by enabling collaborative decisions, allowing epidemiologists and state and federal officials to work together using a unique real-time planning tool: a multi-player computer game called "Symphony." A single-player version called "Sonata" will be released first.

Why use group gaming to plan for disease outbreaks? Because concepts tend to "stick" better when people use them in game playing, the researchers said.

The idea is to put different decision-makers — from policy-makers to field agents to veterinarians — in each other's shoes. The researchers envision all of these constituents together in a virtual room doing a planning exercise with the game and real-time visualizations, such as heat maps of potential danger zones.

Also on the team is Sangmi Pallickara, an assistant professor in computer science who is leading the big data component of the project: management of about 1 trillion files. Statistics professor Jay Breidt will provide statistical models and expertise. Others on the team include a veterinary epidemiologist and an economist from Kansas State University and a designer of a disease spread model.

"From a computer scientist's perspective, creating a disease outbreak planning tool introduces a host of interesting challenges," Shrideep Pallickara said. Machine learning, statistical models and ensemble learning all become part of the process.

"It is not enough for our tool to be accurate. It has to be useful. It has to be in real time," Pallickara said. "The players — DHS, USDA, CEAH, state and federal officials — need to see a response in less than 100 milliseconds."


Idaho Suffolks

University of Idaho animal and veterinary science (AVS) students and faculty gathered at the campus sheep center to observe look at a flock of registered Suffolk sheep that is adjusting to its new home.

The 48 ewes, four rams and 18 ewe lambs were purchased in November by the Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station, which operates the sheep center as part of the Palouse Research, Extension & Education Center.

The flock’s arrival in early December was a sort of back-to-the-future moment for the experiment station and the University of Idaho College of Agricultural & Life Sciences.

In 1919, the University of Idaho became home to the West's first purebred Suffolk sheep, donated by England's Suffolk Sheep Society. Then, agriculture dean E.J. Iddings welcomed the new flock with the support of sheep producers who wanted to use Suffolk rams to sire blackface market lambs.

This fall, AVS professor Matt Doumit recommended the purchase after learning from Washington State University colleague Jan Busboom that a high-quality flock of registered Suffolks bred by Dick Ducharme, owner of Tucannon River Suffolks, was on the market.

The production-tested, purebred Suffolk sheep flock that Ducharme developed offered a good opportunity for testing the genetic influence of different sires.

The flock’s past enrollment in the National Sheep Improvement Program offers a wealth of production information that takes years to amass.

"We try to emphasize to our students the value of recordkeeping in livestock production," Doumit said.

For Brenda Murdoch, assistant professor of animal science, the flock provides a valuable resource to expand genomics research. The animals’ uniformity will enhance her ability to use DNA testing to seek genetic markers tied to specific traits.

The older animals are already confirmed to be genetically resistant to scrapie, a prion disease known for decades in sheep and controlled by strict monitoring of breeding operations. Most of the new lambs resulted from resistant parents, but about half of the ewe lambs will require genetic screening.

Working with registered sheep offers a wealth of information about genetics, productivity, economics and other factors that will help students and researchers better use modern genomics information, Murdoch added.

Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station interim director and AVS department head Mark McGuire said the flock also adds new options for the college's partnership with the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station near Dubois, Ida. The station is USDA's largest facility for range-based sheep production.

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