Cow Farts: Global warmers or a load of hot air?

    • Scientists and farmers around the world are debating a very serious subject. Cow farts. Yes, really, they're talking about farting cows. They're talking about cow burps as well, and sheep burps, and even sheep farts.   

      Why? Good question. Let's start with a look at the science behind wind.

      Farts and burps are basically pockets of gas that get released from human and animal bodies.

      Some gas is swallowed, like oxygen, when we eat or talk. Some of it is created inside our bodies as we digest food.

      This gassy mixture isn't useful, so our bodies push it out and away as best they can... in burps and farts. Got it so far? Hope you're not giggling by the way, this is very serious science.

      One of the gases found in farts and burps is called 'methane'. A certain amount of methane in the atmosphere is natural, and is a good thing. Along with other so-called 'greenhouse gases' methane collects in the sky and traps warm air around our planet.

      Problems begin when the layer of greenhouse gases gets too thick and traps too much heat. This is called 'global warming'.

      It's now a proven fact that our planet is warming up very quickly. And, most scientists agree that this is because of greenhouse gases, including methane. Which takes us back to our farting farm animals.

      A scientific report has claimed that dairy cows in California were producing almost 20 pounds (in weight, that's almost 10 kg) of gas every year, each. That's a huge, huge amount.

      If that figure is accurate, it could mean that cow farts were causing more global warming than pollution from cars in that region, as millions of cows live there.

      Trouble is, some farmers don't believe the report. They reckon their cows are far less windy than that and are questioning the way the research was done.

      Scientists around the world have known for years that animal wind could be a problem. What they can't agree on is how much of a problem. It's very difficult to measure just how much methane an animal is burping and farting out.

      Even if scientists manage to measure the size of the farts or burps, they then have to work out how much methane they contain.

      Another problem is that methane doesn't only come from windy animals. It's released when rubbish is processed for instance... which means more measuring and more debate.

      So how would you do it? (Take a measurement we mean, not fart.)

      Got any bright ideas? As you'll know from science lessons it's very important to take accurate measurements when you're running an experiment. Otherwise, other scientists won't take your results seriously.

      How might you capture any released wind, without hurting the animals and whilst making sure the conditions were similar to their field?

      Would you be able to tell if a cow was holding its farts in until you'd gone?

      How would you make sure your sheep wasn't too shy to burp? It may sound silly, but making test conditions natural is a problem scientists grapple with.

      Back to being serious... funny though farts and burps can be, especially at certain moments in the school day, this is a real worry for farmers and scientists.

      Global warming is a major problem, but we need our cows and sheep and they need to burp and fart. There's work going on to see if changing their food can make their farts and burps less potent - we'll keep you posted on that.

      If you want to find out more about pollution, greenhouse gases or animals, why not visit your local science centre or natural history museum?

      One last thing - keep your fart-measuring inventions as theory only won't you? We don't want to hear about sheep or cows being chased around fields by over-keen Show Me surfers - farm animals like a quiet life.

      If you want to know more, the Science Museum has more information - including a top ten of animals that fart! You can also have a go at spotting other things that impact the climate at Glasgow Science Centre's Climate Change Challenge.
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