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Consumer Reports

Researcher makes cattle emissions his mission | (KRT) DAVIS, Calif. — Frank Mitloehner held inside a shiny metal canister a precious clue to understanding just what makes California's Central Valley air some of the nation's dirtiest. He hoisted it with one arm, like a trophy fish.

"Cow fart," said Mitloehner. "There's one in there."

He was only partly joking.

Bovine flatulence, which produces methane, is just a small part of what cows send into the air, said Mitloehner, a University of California cooperative extension air-quality specialist in the department of animal science. The bigger issues, he thinks, are ammonia from bovine waste and particulate matter from cows kicking up dust and pulverizing their own patties.

But research is old and sketchy, leaving unclear just how badly the valley's 1.2 million dairy cows pollute the skies and turn valley sunsets a dirty orange. The 35-year-old German scientist hopes to clear the air.

On the farm at UC Davis he has launched a unique experiment, studying cow emissions and how to reduce them, inside four airtight, climate-controlled "bio bubbles." In each Quonset hut-like pen, 10 Holsteins dwell under a plastic roof, chewing alfalfa, oat hay and almond hulls and delivering more scientific fodder.

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Funny as it sounds, his $600,000 experiment has drawn serious interest among state and regional air regulators and California's dairy industry, which now faces increased scrutiny.

Air officials say the state's cows add about 10 percent of the chemicals that combine in the air to produce smog-forming ozone. And, according to the state Air Resources Board, emissions of reactive organic gases from cattle operations in the Central Valley could outpace that of cars by 2010.

The valley, which produces 20 percent of the nation's milk, also has the country's second-worst smog problem, behind Los Angeles, air officials say.

Under a new law, the state for the first time has set up a permitting system for farms and dairies that contribute a certain amount of air pollution. And the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District recently set mandates for new and expanding dairies to control pollution.

Dairymen in the valley say it means buying expensive pieces of unproven equipment to convert manure to energy. Called digesters, they run to well over $1 million.

Many complain that the mandates are built upon suspect, ancient science - a study done in 1938 is often cited. Until Mitloehner and others do new research, it will remain unclear, for instance, exactly where most of the pollution from dairies comes from, and therefore how to fix it.

Some dairymen now joke that they'll be asked to put diapers on their cattle.

"My response used to be, `Oh, c'mon,'" said Ray Souza, who runs a dairy farm with 1,200 cattle in Turlock. "Now it's, `What's going to happen now?'"

Government regulators acknowledge a thin body of good data. At the same time, they insist that dairies need to better address air issues.

"Animal feed lots are a huge source of air pollution," said Anthony Presto of the San Joaquin pollution district. "Not to say we don't need them. We do need all of these farmers. But just like any industry, things need to be improved."

J.P. Cativiela, who represents dairy interests on environmental issues, said it's hard not to laugh at all the focus on cow manure, flatulence and belching - until you see the economic impact.

The state's dairy industry produces 122,000 jobs and its dairymen earn $5 billion in direct revenue, and contribute more than $17 billion to the state economy, according to industry figures.

"It's a little funny to see these Quonset hut-looking bubbles and putting cows in them. To some people it's a big joke," said Cativiela. "When it becomes connected to people's jobs and the air we breath, it's an issue we take seriously."

Mitloehner and his graduate students expect to have their first trial complete in eight months. The scientist, who turned to cow emissions at the young age of 20 and never looked back, said he's now a man in high demand.

"Sometimes it's a little too political," he said. "They all want my data."

The raw material he can keep.

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© 2004, Contra Costa Times Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services