Cow Farts Are Not the Problem

Cow Farts Are Not the Problem

In mid-July, the fast food chain released on Twitter an ad campaign starring boot-stomping kids, led by Mason Ramsey of Walmart Yodeling Kid fame, singing about cow farts contributing to global warming and claiming that lemongrass can reduce methane in those farts by a third.

Farts are funny. Burger King thinks yodeling about cow farts is even funnier. In mid-July, the fast food chain released on Twitter an ad campaign starring boot-stomping kids, led by Mason Ramsey of Walmart Yodeling Kid fame, singing about cow farts contributing to global warming and claiming that lemongrass can reduce methane in those farts by a third.

The ad, part of the company’s #CowsMenu campaign, generated a backlash of social media criticism. Pissed-off ranchers and a concerned science community pointed out that the ad perpetuated a long-standing misconception about cow farts and the hotly debated narrative that cows are a major climate change problem. Plus, it promoted an unproven solution as its big greenhouse gas win. In doing so, Burger King missed the chance to highlight the real potential for change: turning cows and their methane-producing digestive systems into a climate cooling solution.

“Because it really is a major deal that agriculture can contribute here.”

Adding insult to injury, Burger King doesn’t know which end of the cow to focus on.

It’s the burps, BK, not the farts. The burps.

Frank Mitloehner, PhD, a University of California, Davis animal science professor and air quality expert, shared strong words about the campaign. “Nearly all enteric methane from cattle is from belching,” he tweeted in response. “Suggesting otherwise turns this serious climate topic into a joke.” Cattle, he argues, can cool the planet — herd sizes, efficient production methods, and burp management are key — and it’s past time for the conversation to shift toward exploring how their emissions could be manipulated in favor of global cooling.

“This is why I have a beef [with] making a silly story out of this,” Mitloeher tells OneZero. “Because it really is a major deal that agriculture can contribute here.”


One of the best parts of growing up a farm kid is experiencing science firsthand — for instance, by having a cow belch in your face. My first job was feeding calves, and I raised heifers for the neighboring dairy starting at age 12 to put myself through college before starting my own farm, so it’s safe to say I’ve had more than my fair share of experience with cow “eructation” (the fancy-pants name for cow belching).

Cows burp dozens of times a day as part of the natural cycle of the ruminant digestive system. When a cow gulps down a mouthful of grass, its digestive process starts in the first of four stomachs, the rumen. Capable of holding up to 25 gallons, about the size of your bathtub, the rumen is chock full of microbes. The whole thing acts like a giant fermentation vat for cellulose-based materials, like grass and hay, the stuff humans can’t digest. Fermentation creates gas — in the case of cows, about 30 to 50 quarts of gas per hour. Ouch.

That’s where the burps come in. A cow burp itself is not unpleasant; it’s sort of sweet and grassy and certainly far from the stinkiest thing produced on a farm (I’d vote for rotting potatoes). You can’t smell the methane, which is odorless.

Scientists estimate that 80% to 95% of a cow’s enteric methane (enteric meaning related to the intestines) comes from the burps. The rest comes in a very small percentage from cow farts but mostly from the stuff that immediately follows it, manure.

But a fart versus burps mix-up is the least of the matter.

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