Combustion engines and fossil fuel power plants get a lot of flack for their role in climbing greenhouse gas emissions, but one of the worst offenders has been lurking in the farmlands, largely undetected by the average pollution-hunter.

Cows, especially those of the dairy variety, are one of the biggest sources of methane on the planet. As a greenhouse gas, methane is about 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and methane emissions from cows constitute about 65 percent of the total dairy farm greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. This means agriculture directly accounts for 16 percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions. While they may appear to be grazing peacefully, cows’ farts (and burps) have actually been waging war on the atmosphere.

Now, an international team of scientists and agricultural experts are fighting back.

Six Australian universities, researchers in Canada, and the CSIRO’s Sustainable Agriculture Flagship are collaborating to measure the methane emissions of cows under normal grazing conditions. Up until now, science has speculated that cow flatulence was a huge source of ground-level methane, but no one’s been able to get accurate readings of just how much they’re tooting out.

According to a recent release, the team will use a range of sophisticated instruments including open path lasers and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) as well as aircraft-mounted cavity ring-down spectroscopy (CRDS) based detectors to measure methane in the atmosphere.

Firing lasers at unsuspecting cows might seem a little inhumane, but as the Daily Mail’s Rob Waugh points out, the scientists won’t be aiming the energy weapon at cows’ rear ends. Instead a laser beam will be shot across a paddock for a few hundred meters and then reflected back to a detector, allowing emission levels to be calculated using computer modelling.

The collaborative effort will also help “develop science that supports methodology development for the Carbon Farming Initiative, an Australian Government program that enables farmers to earn ‘carbon credits’ for undertaking abatement activities on their properties,” said Dr. Ed Charmley, CSIRO’s Research Project Leader.

Photo credit: BeauGiles/Flickr