Stories tagged cattle


Brown gold!: This is actually the solid byproduct of a manure-to-methane operation. As you can see, it holds no fear for the owner of this bare hand.
Brown gold!: This is actually the solid byproduct of a manure-to-methane operation. As you can see, it holds no fear for the owner of this bare hand.Courtesy kqedquest
We’ve talked about the delights of cow feces before on Science Buzz, but mid-July always puts me in the mind of “brown gold” (coincidentally, the last occasion it came up was exactly four years ago today), and any time there’s talk of turning an animal into a fuel source, I get excited. (Remember that fuel cell that ran on the tears of lab monkeys? Like that.) Why not take another look?

So here you are: another wonderful story of cows trying their best to please us, before they make the ultimate gift of allowing their bodies to be processed into hamburgers and gelatin and cool jackets.

Poop jokes aside (j/k—that’s impossible), it is a pretty interesting story. The smell you detect coming from cattle farms is, of course, largely from the tens of thousands of gallons of poop the cattle produce every day. The decomposing feces release lots of stinky methane. (Or, to be more precise, the methane itself isn’t smelly. The bad smell comes from other chemicals, like methanethiol, produced by poop-eating bacteria along with the methane.)

Aside from being, you know, gross, all of that poop is pretty bad for the environment. The methane is released into the atmosphere, where it traps heat and contributes to global warming (methane is 20 to 50 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas), and the poop itself is spread onto fields as fertilizer. Re-using the poop as fertilizer is mostly a good idea, but not all of it gets absorbed into the soil, and lots of it ends up getting washed away into rivers, lakes, and streams, where it pollutes the water.

Some farms have managed to address all of these problems, and make money while doing it.

Instead of spreading the manure onto fields right away, the farms funnel all the poop into swimming pool-sized holding tanks, where it is mixed around and just sort of stewed for a few weeks. All of the methane gas produced by bacteria as it breaks down the manure is captured in tanks. What’s left is a fluffy, more or less sterile, solid that can be used as bedding for the animals, or mixed in with soil, and a liquid fertilizer that can be spread onto fields.

The methane can then be used on-site to generate electricity, either by burning it in a generator, or using it in a fuel cell. (The methane is broken apart and combined with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, water, and carbon dioxide.) A large farm will produce enough electricity to power itself and several hundred other houses. (The extra electricity is just put back into the power grid and sold to the power company.)

Whether the methane is burned or used in a fuel cell, the process still creates carbon dioxide. However, CO2 isn’t nearly as bad as methane when it comes to trapping heat, and because the original source of the carbon was from plant-based feed, the process can be considered “carbon-neutral.” (Although one might argue that the fossil fuels involved in other steps of the cattle farming process could offset this. But let’s leave that be for now. It’s complicated.)

The downside is that setting up an operation to capture and process manure, and to generate power by burning it is expensive—it took about 2.2 million dollars to do it at the farm covered in the article, with about a third of that coming from grants. Still, the byproducts (electricity, fertilizer, soil/bedding) are profitable enough that the system could pay for itself over the course of a few years.

It’s amazing, eh? Out of a cow’s butt we get soft, clean bedding, liquid fertilizer, and electricity, all without the bad smell. What a world.


A quick guide to practical mutilation: I hear it's all about lips and anus, but, really, I'm more of a sirloin kind of guy.
A quick guide to practical mutilation: I hear it's all about lips and anus, but, really, I'm more of a sirloin kind of guy.Courtesy Ysangkok
Hey, some of this post is pretty really gross, so skip it if you’re some kind of baby, okay?

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never given cattle mutilation much thought. I don’t mean that I simply haven’t considered the ups and downs of mutilation, rather that I’ve barely considered it at all.

I know, I know. We’re practically wading our way to work through piles of dead, mutilated cattle, and here I am thinking about TGIF programming, archery, and mustard (or whatever—sometimes I think about other things too, just not cattle mutilation). This, people, is why the most important problems out there never get solved; because we’re all too focused on little things like traffic safety. Well, today at least, I’ll be doing my part to let y’all in the rural Da Vinci Code: cattle mutilation (of course).

What brings cattle mutilation to mind today, of all days, on this sunny Friday? Because those lousy bovine molesters have struck again, this time in sleepy, innocent Saskatchewan.

Last week, outside the village of Stockholm, Saskatchewan, a farmer awoke to find one of her cows dead and mutilated just yards away from her house. Missing its rectum, genitals, navel, udder, lips, tongue, one eye, and one ear, the unfortunate animal could perhaps best be described as “yucky.” Said farmer Harris to her husband, “you don’t even want to see this.”

Was Mrs. Harris right? My sources say no: very probably Mr. Harris did indeed want to see the horribly abused animal outside his house.

A local veterinarian believed the incisions on the cow “took a little bit of skill,” and may have been done with an electric cautery unit, as no blood was found on the scene. In addition to the lack of blood, the scene showed no evidence of a struggle, nor were there any footprints or tire tracks nearby.

What is to be made of this? Difficult to say, but it may be time look behind us. Not for sneaky cattle mutilators, but at history.

Like the Internet, cattle mutilation is a relatively new invention. It’s not certain if this is because our ancestors lacked the necessary tools, or just the imagination. Whatever the reason, this particular brand of animal abuse didn’t surface until the 1960s, when reports of grotesquely mutilated animals (mostly cows) began coming out of the states of Kansas and Pennsylvania (until this point, we had always been pretty kind to cattle). By the mid 70s, cattle mutilation was being reported in 15 states, from North Dakota to Texas, and in 1975 a senator from Colorado, Floyd K Haskell (married to Nina Totenberg, if you can believe it), contacted the FBI to look into the problem, claiming that there had been 130 mutilations in his state alone. The FBI actually did complete an investigation on cattle mutilations, dubbed “Operation Animal Mutilation,” in 1979—more on that in a moment.

The details of reported cattle mutilations vary from case to case, but certain characteristics seem to be quite consistent:

  • The removal of eyes, udders and sexual organs
  • The removal of the anus to a depth of around 12 inches
  • The removal of the tongue and/or lips
  • The removal of one ear
  • The striping of hide and flesh from the jaw and the area directly beneath the ear
  • The removal of soft organs from the lower body
  • The presence of incisions and cuts across the body that appear to have been made by a surgical instrument
  • Unexplained damage to remaining organs, but no sign of damage to surrounding area
  • A lack of predation signs (teethmarks, tearing of skin or flesh, animal footprints)on or around the carcass
  • Lack of scavenging

Mutilation of the eye, tongue, genitals, and rectum seem to be the most common characteristics. Also, the animals are often, but not always, drained of blood.

Oh, man.

Who’s mutilating these cowsies? Aliens, obviously, right? Well, if you consider the little research that’s been done on cattle mutilations, aliens are probably the least satisfying answer. What?! I know.

The 1979 FBI investigation concluded, for instance, that the mutilations were “predominately the result of natural predation, but that some contained anomalies that could not be accounted for by conventional wisdom.” “Anomalies” are kind of spooky, but mostly what the feds were talking about falls in line with the opinions of many scientists, veterinarians, and agricultural workers: missing or damaged organs are explained by dehydration, tissue contraction, and the actions of scavenging insects and burrowing parasites; missing eyes are due to bowflies and carrion birds; absence of blood is accounted for by pooling in low points in the body and insect consumption; and the “surgical incisions” are actually tears in the skin and flesh caused by bloating and/or dehydration.


Another school of thought is that “deviant activity” is behind the mutilations; those mutilations that cannot be explained by animal predation are likely caused by deviants who “derive pleasure or sexual stimulation from mutilating animals.” As much as we want to avoid picturing this in our minds, these sorts of attacks are pretty well documented phenomena. They are generally focused on family pets, and are usually not quite so “creative” as most cases of cattle mutilation. However, occasionally deviant attacks are directed at larger animals, like cows or horses, and individuals with sociopathic disorders are known to have mutilated animals in much more elaborate ways, sometimes using surgical instruments.

Cults have also been blamed for the phenomenon, but I feel like I’ve already written a little too much on this post, so I’m not going to get into it.

Then, of course, you have the government conspiracy theories, which are awesome. There’s some thought, by some people, that many of the mutilations occur near nuclear test sights, and that the cattle are actually dissection subjects to determine accumulated levels of radioactive materials in soft tissues. Mutilations nowhere near testing sites are, naturally, control subjects, or red herrings. Government conspiracy theories also involve black helicopters, radiation weapons, lasers, and mad cow disease. Love it, but, you know… can’t the government buy its own cows? No, forget it, whatever.

And finally, of course, aliens. We all know that it’s aliens. They’re mutilating cattle to, um, gather genetic material. It begs the question “What’s so special about cows that you’d travel across the galaxy to gather their genetic material? Because I’ve just been eating them. Also, you know you can get genetic material from anywhere on their bodies, right? You don’t have to cut out their anuses. You seriously were able to build a spaceship?”

Any strong feelings about cattle mutilation out there? Anyone want to defend the aliens? Did anyone read this whole post? Bleh.


Transmission electron micrograph of Escherichia coli O157:H7: Courtesy CDC
Transmission electron micrograph of Escherichia coli O157:H7: Courtesy CDC
A recent NY times article looks into various approaches underdevelopment to prevent or treat food poisoning by the bacteria E. coli O157:H7. These approaches include:
Prevention – as we saw last fall, this does not always work. This is especially true with fresh produce.
Cattle vaccines – it reduces but does not eliminate the E. coli found in manure. Would this give us a false sense of security? What would the incentive be for farmers to vaccinate their herds? Cows don’t get sick from the bacteria so it would have to be a mandate or altruism.
Cattle antibiotics – feeding antibiotics to cows raises concerns of creating more antibiotic resistant pathogens.
Industrial chemicals – feed cows sodium chlorate which the O157 bacteria converts to it to sodium chlorite which poisons the pathogen
Bacterial-killing viruses – these are viruses that infect and kill only bacteria.
Friendly bacteria – is also known as probiotics. This approach feeds cattle friendly bacteria to displace the O157 bacteria. It is already sold to aid cattle digestion and some believe it reduces the amount of O157 bacteria in the manure
Human vaccines – are still years from the market. Early testing looks promising. Testing the effectiveness will be difficult. Should we be vaccinating every child in order to protect a small number? And would this make us lax with our food handling techniques. That will lead to other food and water borne infections.
Human drugs for treatment – outbreaks are rare and sporadic so these would be hard to test in clinical trials. The clues that signal an infection don’t start until 3-4 days after ingestion of the bacteria so it might also be hard to diagnose and treat the infection in a timely manner.
Monoclonal antibodies – these are a synthetic version of your body’s own infection fighters. They seem to be working in animals and with early human safety trials. But the cost is prohibitive to test them in order to prevent hemolytic uremic syndrome. This would start working once the toxin is already in the bloodstream so there are questions about its effectiveness.

We will probably see a few of these techniques used in parallel. What do you think is the best approach and why?


Cows: The UN estimates that cows and other livestock are responsible for 18% of the global warming effect. Save the planet, eat a cow?
Cows: The UN estimates that cows and other livestock are responsible for 18% of the global warming effect. Save the planet, eat a cow?
Last night, I was curled up on the sofa reading an old issue of The New Yorker (January 22, 2007, to be exact). The book review feature ("Vegetable Love: The History of Vegetarianism") was about Tristram Stuart's The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times. And one section, in particular, made me sit up and read a little closer. I quote:

"These days, the environmental argument [for vegetarianism] os not about maximizing the number of people that the environment can sustain but about sustaining the environment. Does producing a pound of lentils involve burning less fossil fuel than producing a pound of hamburger meat, or more? How many square miles of forest are cleared to graze cattle? How much biodiversity is lost both in grazing livestock and in raising the corn and soybeans to fatten them? A recent report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reckons that at least 18% of the global warming effect comes from livestock, more than is cause by all the world's transportation systems. It has been estimated that 40% of global grain output is used to feed animals rather than people, and that half of this grain would be sufficient to eliminate world hunger if--and it's not a small if--the political will could be found to insure equitable distribution.

Yet the energy-cost argument is formidably complicated and cannot by itself support refusing all forms of meat in favor of all forms of plant matter: shooting and eating the deer chewing up the tulips in your garden may turn out to be more environmentally virtuous than dining on tofu manufactured from Chinese soybeans, and walking to the local supermaket for a nice hanger cut steak cut from a grass-fed New Zealand steer may be kinder to the planet than getting into your Toyota Prius to drive five miles for some organic Zambian green beans."

(This issue continues to befuddle me. Is it better to buy all local produce when I can, regardless of organic status (which, I must admit, I don't really care so much about)? Or does the bulk production and transport of the run-of-the-mill produce at the big-box grocery cancel out some harmful environmental effects?)

The article continues:

"The number of vegetarians in developed countries is evidently on the increase, but the world's per capita consumption of meat rises relentlessly: in 1981, it was 62 pounds per year; in 2002, the figure stood at 87.5 pounds. In carnivorous America, in increased from 238.1 pounds to 275.1 pounds, and the practice is spreading in traditionally herbivorous Asia. Indians' meat consumption has rised from 8.4 to 11.5 pounds since 1981; in China, it has increased from 33.1 to an astonishing 115.5 pounds. This result has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with prosperity."

(275.1 pounds! Crazy! My family eats a lot of vegetarian meals, not on principle, but just because we like them. I wonder how we compare?)

The article ends with an awesome quote from Ben Franklin, who flirted with vegetarianism but didn't quite make it stick. He was 16, and on his first sea voyage from Boston, when his ship was becalmed off Block Island in the Narragansett Bay. He wrote:

"Our Peopl set about catching Cod, & haul'd up a great many. Hitherto I had stick to my Resolution of not eating animal Food; and on this Occasion, I consider'd . . . the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok'd Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter. All this seem'd very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smeled admirably well. I balanc'd some time between Principle & Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then though I, if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you. So I din'd upon Cod very heartily and continu'd to eat with other People, returning only now & then occasionally to a vegetable Diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Indeed! :)