Gwynne Dyer: Cows that Blow Up, and Could Blast Our Future

What Goes ‘Moo’ And Then Explodes?

Gwynne Dyer — April 21, 2024

A nuclear bomb? Nope: methane explosion on a Texas dairy farm. The death toll: Zero people; 18K cows. The barn that burned was Texas-sized, half a mile long.

“When I do a puzzle with my daughters, there is usually an elephant next to a giraffe next to a rhino,” said Prof. Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science. “But if I was trying to give them a more realistic sense of the world, it would be a cow next to a cow next to a cow and then a chicken.”

He didn’t mention the fact that the cows sometimes explode. Well, not exactly, but earlier this month (10 April) an industrial-scale dairy farm in Texas had a barn explosion that killed 18,000 cows. Cows belch methane as they digest their fodder, and above a concentration of 5% methane becomes explosive.

Apparently, nobody explained to the folks at the South Fork Dairy (near Dimmit, Texas) that proper ventilation will prevent methane from building up like that. However, explosions are the least of our cow problems. There are at least one billion cows in the world, and the average cow produces a hundred kilos of methane per year.

That’s most unfortunate because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, responsible for between a quarter and a third of the warming that is playing havoc with our climate today. Moreover, more than half the agricultural land on the planet is used to feed not people but all those cattle.

Early farmers domesticated cattle at least 8,000 years ago, and even that had an impact on the planet. Over a few thousand years the extra methane emitted by the relatively small number of tame cattle those farmers kept – probably only a few million – was enough to turn the climate trend completely around.

The normal pattern since long before human beings appeared on the planet has been a hundred thousand years of deep freeze, then a ten-thousand-year ‘inter-glacial’ warm period like the present, and repeat ad nauseam. The current inter-glacial started 11,900 years ago, so we should be sliding down into the next major glaciation by now – but we’re not.

The Ice Ages were cancelled permanently about 5,000 years ago. A few million extra cattle belching methane for 3,000 years put enough methane into the air to stop the cooling trend. Even before the Industrial Revolution, the average global temperature was a full degree Celsius higher than you would normally expect at this point in the cycle.

The fundamental issue is land use. Human beings have appropriated 40% of the land surface of the planet for our agriculture (up from 7% in 1700), removing both the trees and most of the original wildlife and replacing them with our own crops and food animals.

If you count ‘managed’ forests, roads, buildings, ski runs and everything in between, we actually control 75% of the ice-free land surface. Much of the rest is bare rock, tending towards the vertical.

We have increased the mass of animal life on the land fourfold (mostly cattle), but removed two-thirds of the mass of vegetable matter (the forests). In fact, the bodies of living human beings now account for 36% of the total weight of land mammals on Earth. Our farm animals account for 60%, and ‘wild’ animals for only 4%.

This has to stop. At least half the current agricultural land on the planet, more likely two-thirds of it, has to be ‘rewilded’ in order to restore the world’s principal carbon sink and to preserve the biodiversity on which the entire ecosystem depends. This doesn’t all have to happen right away, but it has to happen in the next thirty to fifty years.

“It wasn’t us” [Burp.]
As a transitional measure, we will feed the domestic animals with ‘food from the air’ (‘precision fermentation’ of selected bacteria, a rapidly developing technology), and give the farmland we used to grow their fodder on (half of all farmland) back to nature.

We can cut the emissions of our animals a bit by the clever use of food additives, but later most of them will have to go too. What will we eat instead? The plants that we grow on the remaining farmland, and the thousand varieties of convincing meat, fish and vegetable substitutes that we can make with the astoundingly flexible fermentation technology.

And what about the two billion people who make their living from farming? That is a very large question, but most of them will have to find other employment within the next two generations.

Why haven’t you heard about this before? Because most of those who know it believe you aren’t ready to hear it yet. You’d think they’re mad. But in ten or fifteen years, almost everybody will know it.

[NOTE: But fear not, milkdrinkers, yogurt-slurpers, cheese nibblers and bovine fanciers! The state of Texas, which brought us the largest, spectacularly fatal freeze-your-butt power grid; the most effective vote-suppression infrastructure since Nathan Bedford Forrest; and some of the biggest mass shootings ever — their agents are On The Dimmit Case. Thus saith the journal Progressive Farmer]:

Progressive Farmer:

Reb Wayne, director of communications for the Texas Department of Agriculture, spoke with DTN about the Dimmitt dairy farm explosion. He said that to the best of his knowledge, nothing of this magnitude has ever happened in the state.

Wayne described the South Fork facility as relatively new, and large, with the barn itself being a half-mile long.

“That is a very large facility, and whatever happened there happened so fast that from what we’re hearing, there was no reaction time. There just has never been any sort of loss of this magnitude even registered here in our state. When we initially heard about this, losses were estimated at 10,000 animals. That was hard to comprehend. Then, suddenly, it was 18,000 animals. This is a tough situation all around. It is a miracle there was no loss of human life.”

Sid Miller, Texas agriculture commissioner, called the incident a “freak accident” in an interview with a local news station. He described the dairy facility as state-of-the-art, climate controlled, and less than 3 years old.

“It just rolled through the whole barn in less than 5 minutes,” Miller said of the fire. The commissioner added that it was his understanding the TCEQ has given permission to bury the animals.

Miller said he hopes the industry can learn from this tragedy.

“This never happened before,” he stressed. “We’ll get to the bottom of it and be prepared to eliminate the possibility of it ever happening again.”



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