April 26, 2021
While watching the news on Saturday they aired a segment on the “Cow Release” that happens annually in Nordic countries. The cows have been held indoors for the past four months and they literally jump with joy when they are finally released to the fields. Sweden’s traditional ‘cow release’ attracts thousands of visitors annually to dairy farms all over the country, but coronavirus restrictions moved the event online last year (for humans). This opportunity to release has long been a tradition among farmers in the Nordic region and more and more farms are opening and hosting events to give city dwellers the chance to see the animals their milk comes from up close. The dairy company Arla broadcast this year’s first event live when a farmer released his 250 dairy cows into his fields after a long, dark winter indoors. Online viewers saw jumps of bovine joy as the herd left the barn bounding into a green field they have not seen for months.
Each cow on average releases between 70 and 120 kg of Methane per year. Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide (CO2). The negative effect on the climate of CH4 is 23 times higher than the effect of CO2. Therefore, the release of about 100 kg CH4 per year for each cow is equivalent to about 2’300 kg CO2 per year. When we compare the value of 2’300 kg CO2, the same amount of CO2 is generated by burning 1,000 liters of gas. With a car using 8 liters of gas per 100 kilometers, you could drive 7,800 miles per year (12,500 km per year) to release the same amount of gas as one cow. World-wide, there are about 1.5 billion cows and bulls. All ruminants (animals which regurgitate food and re-chews it) in the world emit about two billion metric tons of CO2-equivalents per year. In addition, clearing of tropical forests and rain forests to get more grazing land and farmland is responsible for an extra 2.8 billion metric tons of CO2 emission per year. That is a lot of carbon.
I spent a Christmas vacation in Wisconsin on a dairy farm. The nighttime temperature was always below freezing and like the Nordic cows, these cows spent the winter in their stalls in the barn. While there I helped the farmer with his chores. Since these cows lived in the barn, they were milked, fed, and “released” all in the same stall. One of the chores I helped with was cleaning out the barn. The barn had an automatic system to remove the waste. You hosed down the floor and the runoff went into a trough that went around the inside of the barn. My job during the cleaning was to stand outside and make sure everything went well. I can still recall the smell as I watched the waste release into the open holding tank. I got my fill of methane that day.
Thoughts: I had previously worked for four months on a dairy farm in Kansas, so I was accustomed to the sights and smells that come with cows. The Kansas cows stayed outside and only came to the parlor barn to be milked. While some would invariably release during milking this generally took place in the field. While these cows did not jump for joy when leaving the barn, they all dutifully walked to the barn when it was time to milk. The cows all knew going to the barn meant good food (oats) and release of the milk that collected in their stomachs. Humans have been offered a similar opportunity to find release with the vaccine, masks, and social distancing. It seems some are reluctant to come to the barn. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.