Cows Might Be Getting Smart Masks for Their Problematic Methane Burps

Illustration for article titled Cows Might Be Getting Smart Masks for Their Problematic Methane Burps
Photo: Frank Augstein (AP)

Humans aren’t the only ones experimenting with wearable smart masks. A Bloomberg report says agricultural giant Cargill will start selling masks for cows that can cut methane emissions from their burps.

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The mask was developed by Zelp Ltd, a UK startup that claims its device can cut methane emissions by up to 53% in trials. It’s sort of like a car’s catalytic converter. According to Bloomberg, the mask features solar-powered fans that suck up the burps into a methane-absorbing filter. The filter then turns the methane into carbon dioxide, which is then released into the air. On Zelp’s site, it says the mask is purportedly adjustable, easy to install, and is similar to “normal halter[s] or collar[s].” The device is also designed to work for four years continuously without the need for charging, as it also features a solar cell and thermoelectric generator.

But wait a minute—doesn’t methane come from cow farts? Technically yes, but much, much less than you think. About 95% of cow-produced methane actually comes from cow burps due to something called enteric fermentation, or the process by which cows digest grasses and grains. It’s a massive problem when it comes to sustainable cattle farming. According to the University of California, Davis, a single cow produces about 220 pounds of methane annually, and as far as greenhouse gases go, methane is 28 times more potent in raising the Earth’s temperature. (Livestock, in general, contribute about 14.5% of all global greenhouse gases.)

The team-up between Cargill and Zelp is an intriguing one. On the one hand, Cargill has its own issues as a multinational agricultural corporation. Its environmental record is, put simply, not great, Bob. However, it is one of the largest beef processors in North America, and in its own words, “harvest[s] more than eight million cattle and produce[s] nearly eight billion pounds of boxed beef and by-products each year.” Making Zelp’s tech accessible to its cattle farming network could have major implications—if the cow mask is truly effective. Zelp makes some lofty claims on its website, but it has yet to be validated by independent experts. (Zelp CEO Francisco Norris told Bloomberg that peer-reviewed studies are on the way once the product has been “fully optimized.”)

Believe it or not, livestock wearables aren’t new. The tech is meant to help farmers monitor animals for disease, as well as manage herds. Dairy farmers, in particular, have been keen on adopting Fitbit-esque trackers, with about 10% of dairy cattle in the US wearing them. Meanwhile, in 2019, Russian farmers strapped VR headsets onto cows to help reduce their anxiety by showing them a calming, virtual environment.

But while livestock wearables are a thing, it’s not a given that Zelp’s masks will take off. For starters, Zelp is currently working on miniaturizing its tech and is aiming for mass production by the end of the year, with 50,000 units planned in its first year and up to 200,000 units the year after. Cargill expects to begin offering the mask to European farmers in 2022, with a potential annual subscription fee of about $80. Whether or not farmers glom onto the device, remains to be seen.

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

DISCUSSION

practicalbatman
PracticalBatman

I kinda liked the idea of adding seaweed to cow’s diets. That study from UC Davis about the addition of a little seaweed cutting methane production from cows by something like 80% was pretty interesting.