Bovine breathalyser will help keep cattle under emissions limit

Capturing and analysing samples of cows’ breath help accurately measure methane and carbon dioxide concentrations

Enteric ruminant emissions (also known as cattle belching) account for an estimated 68 per cent of total agri emissions in Ireland. Jack Pilkington and Alan O’Donovan, co-founders of Offaly-based Agri Data Analytics, are not disputing the figure but they believe it would be a lot more accurate if enteric excretions could be measured more precisely.

Cue their answer to the problem: a breathalyser for cows.

“Our aim is to provide agri-focused researchers with data they can use to identify high- and low-emitting ruminants, test methane-reducing supplements and determine ways of cutting carbon dioxide and methane output through genetic, dietary and supplementary means without compromising dairy and beef yields,” says Pilkington.

He adds the bovine breathalyser will also play a role in determining if the farming community is being “disproportionally blamed for the global climate crisis”.

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Hands-on testing is highly stressful for livestock so this was something the founders wanted to avoid from the get-go. What was needed was a way of encouraging the cattle to comply voluntarily and as feed is always a big attraction, the founders are using bait food to entice cattle to the trough.

As the animals move towards the food, the system will automatically read their identity tags and the breathalyser technology will start drawing air from the feeding tray once they begin to eat.

“Samples of the cow’s exhaled breath are captured and processed using specialised gas sensors that can accurately determine the concentration of methane and carbon dioxide present,” O’Donovan says. “After an adequate amount of testing on a herd has taken place, we analyse all of the emissions data along with other performance and health parameters to determine the grams per day of methane and carbon dioxide emitted by each animal.”

If Ireland is to achieve its COP26 methane targets by 2030, the agricultural sector here must reduce methane emissions by 25 per cent. One proposed solution is a national cull. Pilkington says this is not the answer as it would result in big job losses and price hikes.

“We felt there had to be another way and that data, and specifically the accurate measurement of emissions, had a role to play in finding an alternative solution,” he says.

“Genetics and diet both play their part in the level of methane emitted by any animal and agri-researchers believe it is possible to significantly reduce enteric bovine emissions through selective breeding programmes and supplementation.

“That’s where we come in. The bovine breathalyser will provide the research community with both the hardware and the data it needs – at scale – to make these changes.”

Both founders come from backgrounds in agribusiness engineering and fabrication and had seen researchers struggling with the limitations of existing measuring systems at first hand. After a period of R&D, they set up Agri Data Analytics in January last year and are testing their initial prototype.

The build of a second prototype is under way with more comprehensive field trials planned for this summer and the commercial unveiling of the device slated for the end of the year. The unit will be made in-house and will cost in the order of €100,000 (a lot less than existing systems on the market) with a recurrent annual software licence fee of €6,000.

The company’s primary customers will be research organisations, meat processors and genetic/breeding services worldwide with New Zealand and Australia as key potential markets.

“We’re not targeting individual farmers at this time – that may come – but bodies such as the Irish Cattle Breeders Federation, Teagasc and researchers at UCD who are focused on reducing bovine methane emissions,” Pilkington says.

Agri Data Analytics is a recent graduate of the Nova UCD AgTech accelerator, and investment in the business to date is roughly €150,000 between founder equity and support from Enterprise Ireland.