Jeff Jardine

New law restricting derriére dairy air sort of stinks to cattle industry

Cow manure solids are separated before going into the biodigester at Fiscalini Farms in Modesto, Calif., in 2015.
Cow manure solids are separated before going into the biodigester at Fiscalini Farms in Modesto, Calif., in 2015. Modesto Bee file

On the surface, and according to headlines across the country, it seems California is in for some serious Elsie shaming.

They use a more common four-letter word that means to break wind or – and this certainly applies to dairy cows – cut the cheese. But this is a family publication, so we’re not going to stoop to that level.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law Senate Bill 1383 to address so-called short-lived climate pollutants – methane gas emissions – generated by concentrations of cattle in places like dairies and feedlots, along with that generated by organic wastes and landfills. It dovetails with Assembly Bill 32, which mandated a return to 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020, and SB 32, which extended AB 32 to 2030.

For many dairy or feedlot owners, this will mean complying. Complying always costs satchels full of money. Some will comply, getting assistance from a $50 million fund fed by cap-and-trade fees paid by polluters. Others – perhaps as many as 1 in 5 dairies – will shut down rather than comply. Between the new laws raising the minimum wage and mandating overtime pay for ag workers – or because they might be looking to get out of the business anyway – they will cite cuts in their profitability as the reason.

What does this mean to you, the shopper and consumer? Not necessarily higher milk or beef prices attributed to higher production costs. California prices are tied to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

To the cattle industries and their associations, it represents a new layer of regulation they fought and likely succeeded in at least minimizing the impacts on their operations. Just about every owner of just about any kind of business in California will tell you the state over-regulates them to the point of suffocation.

In this case they derided the legislation as being an asinine regulation of cow flatulation. That, in turn, definitely gave the critics and headline writers a chance to get witty. After all, everyone knows you can no more stop a cow from ripping one than you can pin down the gas-passing culprit in a crowded elevator.

And as it turns out, the animal’s rear end unfairly is the butt of the cow-flatulation jokes. The majority of the methane released by the animal into the air – called enteric fermentation – comes back out through the mouth in the form of belches and burps, said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of Western United Dairymen, based in Modesto.

“You don’t want them to pass gas (through the back end),” she said. Too much gas out the back side indicates gastric discomfort. “That means they produce less milk.”

All of that can be eased through the types and mixes of feeds and is impacted by factors including cost-effectiveness and the effect on the animal’s health.

“The bill is specific in how it can regulate EF,” said Justin Oldfield of the California Cattlemen’s Association.

The bulk of the methane comes from the manure, and can be collected through mechanical digesters. They began popping up at dairies in 2002, aimed at harnessing the gas to make electricity.

The gas collected at a digester at Fiscalini powers a generator whose electricity is sold to the Modesto Irrigation District. But those generators created an added expense.

“Without a power-purchase agreement,” said Ben Brennan, who maintains the system for an Indiana-based company, “it wouldn’t make much sense.”

Thus, fewer than 20 of the large digesters exist in the state. At dairies without electricity-generation capability and no pipeline to transport methane gas to one, the gas gets burned off or “flared.”

“Half of them have failed,” Raudabaugh said. “There’s no market for the energy. It needs to have investors willing to build a pipeline. It’s not like oil or natural gas.”

The new law doesn’t force the dairymen to make changes immediately. The State Air Resources Board has until 2018 to develop a strategy, until 2024 before the regulations would take effect. By 2030, it must cut methane by 40 percent, hydrofluorocarbon gases by 40 percent and black carbon by 50 percent of 2013 levels to be compliant.

The key here is that as clever as the wordsmiths might get with the headlines, the state isn’t really regulating cow flatulence.

Even so, to those in the dairy and cattle industry, any additional regulations can be hard to digest.