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Climate Change Miscellany

Seaweed Burps

Nugget the cow: Seaweed-munching bovine chews on solution to methane problem: With a nose painted dark walnut, Nugget’s body is the color of a lightly toasted marshmallow. Her hair is soft when brushed one way, coarse when brushed the other. Weighing a queen-size 1,200 pounds, she likes to retreat to the back of the barn after her afternoon feeding frenzy concludes.

Nugget has a few piercings on her creamy oval ears, one being a bright yellow tag displaying her name and identification number: Bovine 145 at the University of New Hampshire’s Organic Dairy Research Farm. A second piercing is an electronic sensor that triggers a nearby machine to measure her burps. As an adult Jersey cow, Nugget’s belching releases methane into the atmosphere, a potent greenhouse gas and the second most common behind carbon dioxide. But it’s not necessarily the type of obnoxious, roaring discharge done by characters in cartoons.

“It’s quiet,” Andre Brito, an associate professor of dairy cattle nutrition and management at the University of New Hampshire, said of the burps. “It’s very difficult to actually hear.” As she saunters with attitude to her feeding stall, her enormous udder swinging between her legs, Nugget peers back, enveloping her dripping nose with her tongue in one swoop.

No, she’s not a fossil fuel power plant or a gas-powered tractor trailer, but this blameless animal is, in fact, contributing to the climate crisis. Each year, Nugget and her numerous cow pals—roughly half a million of them in New England—generate about the same climate impact as nearly 240,000 gas-powered passenger vehicles driven for one year. Nugget’s annual contribution to global warming is about 220 pounds of methane. It’s a significant carbon hoofprint when you look at the scale of the dairy and meat industries globally.

Nugget’s farm is part of a handful of federally funded projects in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine where researchers are exploring different seaweed species, particularly those local to the Northeast, and how they impact the amount of methane cows burp.

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