Cows – a gut check… and the future of beer?

The North American soybean harvest of 2018 is not yet in the books. It consumes this writer and many others as perhaps it should. It may interest many that for much of the eastern parts of the North American bread basket the harvest thus far has gone fairly well, and yields have been quite good. Humanity should be able to feed herself for the foreseeable future. With nothing else to report on that front at the moment I thought I’d share a couple of other farming/food related stories that have crossed the threshold of our interest here at GP.

Cow guts:

As a plant scientist I tend toward fascination with the technologies surrounding our animalian domesticates. Cows in particular, as our partners in food production, seem to drive many imaginations. And they are kinda cute in their own way. It’s hard to see how one can go wrong with a cow picture attached to their writing. I hope that’s not too cheesy. Heaven forbid I try to milk this for effect.

Holstein cows

Faces only a mother could love?

Ruminants in general, cows and cattle in particular, seem to have earned a tough reputation in the world of sustainability these days. Their ability to digest grass and convert it to foods we can use seems to many an insufficient reason to keep them around. Cuteness aside. Whatever has Bossy done to deserve such a bad rap? She belches it seems. Farts too. The poor gassy thing. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but they tend to pass over the smells and greenhouse gasses.

Turns out Bossy herself isn’t the immediate source of the methane that has folk up in arms – but the microbes in her guts (and primarily in the first of those four guts – the rumen). But just as we turn to cows for milk and beef, the cows turn to microbes to break down the fibers in the grass. And some of the microbes produce methane.

What to do?

Feed seaweed. And why not? Cows have been on grasslands for too long. Let’s send them to sea. Researchers at UC Davis are on it:

Or, one can breed the cows to host better microbes. Researchers in Scotland are on this one:  [BTW, author of this NPR piece is Angus Chen… can’t make this stuff up 😊 ]

In the second article the researchers used crossbred beef animals – but results should work for dairy animals as well.

Next step, we breed the cows and breed the seaweed feedstuff to get to even more beneficial results. And why not breed better gut microbes? Shoot, if we set our minds to it, we should be able to come up with a cow and feed combination that reverses the global warming threat. The cows are breathing air containing greenhouse gases. Right now, the oxygen in the air is taken up in the lung and carbon dioxide is shed. But why not capture CO2 as it enters and escapes the cow? Can you imagine the linings of the nostrils and air ways hosting CO2 capturing microbes? Not an easy ask, but a trip of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Green cows; you saw it here first my friends.

Beer futures:

Barley is a key ingredient for making beer. Barley is also used for animal feed (cows come to mind for some reason), and for other human foods. A recent study to model potential future environmental scenarios based on anticipated climate change (because the Green cows aren’t here yet*) has predicted that barley might be less available down the road. Oh dear. Seems at least one US Supreme Court Justice might be alarmed by this development.

Study link: [abstract only – full article behind a paywall]

Will fess up that I haven’t read the whole article (too cheap to drop the coin). But I am persuaded the authors haven’t accounted for all the farmland that would open up for barley production in a warming world. Canadian prairie in particular could open up to barley production if global warming results in milder winters up north (winter barley is preferred for malting and thus beer making).

Barley breeding has ramped up in recent years due to the rapid increase in craft brewing. Until a few years ago there hadn’t been any barley breeding in Ohio in over a generation. The program that exists now is particularly focused on malting barley, and already a handful of Ohio soybean growers that I know from work are experimenting raising barley. Hops are also being grown again in Ohio. Beer is beer. If climate change makes brewing a bit more difficult, so be it. One more reason to take better care of the planet now.

Green cows could certainly postpone any future climatic pressures on our barley production. Beer should be safe for the near term. Cheese, steaks and brisket, and beer. Good stuff.


*Just to be certain that Green cows aren’t here yet and I’ve just missed them I asked Google Scholar to have a peek. The only hits it found for Green cows were dairy cow papers where one (or more??) of the authors was named Green.

Picture credit:


  1. Kris Weidenbenner · · Reply

    I must say this article provides its own attempt at global warming from the pun-ishment of the author. Go big Bro.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What can I say. I like beer, used to feed Holstein bull calves… and puns, well – that runs in the family.


  2. I have seen the enemy and it’s certainly not…cows. Or their guts, whose cellulose-digesting wonders we perhaps ought to understand quite a bit better before we start tinkering with? So as not to be accused of do-nothingism, we could work on breeding up some Green Humans first. I think it’s our minds, rather than our guts, that need the induced evolution. Without delay.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah – a riff on the classic Pogo observation – I’ve seen the enemy and he is us. But breeding humans smacks of eugenics; a long and ugly history on that front. Cow gut tinkering has a fairly long history too I believe. I found the UC Davis piece (seaweed) interesting because the seaweed – even in the small doses they use – was less palatable (duh) so they added molasses to help the cows accept it. Visions of children holding their noses as they attempt to eat the broccoli that Mom and Dad put on their plate.

      I agree – human minds could do with some redirecting on matters of planetary domination, greed, hate, and other disagreeable activities. Human hearts might just be the point of entry to make some progress. And then there’s the old saw that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. So we’re back to the gut.


  3. […] in October I posted a piece on cow guts.  In it I mentioned two avenues to remediation of methane evolution from ruminant guts, the […]


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