by George Looby

A considerable amount has been written about the production of methane gas by the cattle population and its impact on global warming. Another gas studied that is a natural part of a cow’s metabolism is ammonia.

While this naturally-occurring gas does not affect global warming directly, it may have an impact on some aspects of the global ecology. Those who have loaded a seasoned pile of manure into a spreader can relate to the unique aroma it can emit.

In areas where large concentrations of cattle are kept for varying periods of time, such as feedlots in the Midwest and West, ammonia emissions can pose a problem to those who live nearby – as well as beyond. The Elanco Corporation has developed a unique product which, when fed to cattle, can reduce the amount of ammonia emitted by a significant amount.

Ammonia by its very nature is an irritant to all species, especially in the respiratory tract and the eyes. Allowed to persist, it can cause potentially serious conditions that may result in permanent damage to susceptible tissues.

The well-known veterinary pharmaceutical company Elanco has introduced a medication which when added to cattle feed can significantly reduce the amount of ammonia they produce. The product, named Experior (lubabegron Type A mediated article), has as one of its functions the relaxation of the smooth muscles of the airways.

Lubabegron was initially investigated as a possible treatment for type 2 diabetes and obesity. The compound did not meet the needs of human patients but during the course of the investigations it was found it improved the proportion of feed that could be used for bodily functions in animals and further showed an increase in their lean body mass.

The lab workers at Elanco found that it could also reduce ammonia and carbon dioxide emissions. Realizing they were on to something, trials involving a total of 536 cattle divided into three groups were organized. The largest group had 336 cattle who were tested for 91 days. Measured against a control, this group was found to emit between 14 and 18 percent less ammonia gas than an untreated group.

In addition to being an irritant, ammonia can contribute to a process called eutrophication. In this process bodies of water become enriched with an excess of nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients reach bodies of water primarily through run off from abutting areas, but nitrogen in the form of ammonia and related compounds can end up in ponds and lakes as the result of wind and rain. This nutrient enrichment in the water causes algae blooms which block sunlight to aquatic plants which eventually results in their death due to the lack of oxygen in the water. This water poses a definite hazard to both domestic livestock and wildlife.

In early November, the FDA approved the use of the product as an aid in reducing the emission of ammonia gas for a specific group of cattle – those being held in feedlots during the last 14 to 91 days on feed prior to slaughter. Many studies have been conducted which indicate the product is safe for cattle to eat when fed as directed. Further meat from cattle so treated is safe for human consumption; there is no withdrawal time and flavor and tenderness remain unchanged. It should be carefully noted that the drug is restricted to the group of cattle described and that group only. This represents the first FDA approval of a drug that reduces gas emissions from an animal or its waste.

The FDA determined it could be sold as an over-the-counter item when fed at the rate of 1.25 to 4.54 grams per ton.