One of the vexing problems in the agricultural sector is how to predict future food prices. Agricultural commodities ranging from corn to pork bellies are traded on futures exchanges where investors try to ascertain what the prices of such products will be. Predict accurately, and one can make a killing. Information on the supply of products versus demand is key to keeping such in balance and thus preventing price spikes or supply gluts.

Cattle are one crucial agricultural commodity. If one has an accurate account of the number of beef cattle being raised in the world, one will have an idea of the future price of steaks.

But the question arises, how to get such an accounting quickly and accurately? A company called Bluefield Technology, based in Palo Alto, California believes it has a solution based on Space Technology.

Measuring cow flatulence from space

One of the characteristics of cows is that the expel methane from their digestive systems, a result of their gut microbes interacting with their feed. Bluefield proposes to launch a constellation of satellites that would measure the amount of methane caused by cow flatulence in the atmosphere. Computer systems would calculate the number of cattle being raised using that information. Then the results would be conveyed to futures traders who would then act accordingly.

The sensing technology is partly derived from that developed by NASA to detect methane on other worlds, such as Mars, that is considered a possible sign of extraterrestrial life.

The ability to measure the number of cattle in real time would be a boon for farmers. If the price of beef is seen as going up, farms and ranches can breed more cattle to meet the demand.

If the price is going down, cattle can be slaughtered sooner rather than later before it decreases too much and farm resources can be diverted to other products. However, a problem may present itself for the idea of inventorying cattle by measuring flatulence.

Cow methane is a greenhouse gas

Because cattle flatulence is considered a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide, some governments are undertaking to curb it.

California has already passed a law regulating the amount of the flatulence, causing eye-rolling in the rest of the country.

Measures to curb cow flatulence range from different types of feed to use genetic modification to breed cattle that are less gassy. Argentina is experimenting with a kind of backpack that would capture cow gas so that it can be used for fuel.

In any case, the ability to measure the worldwide amount of cow flatulence is several years away. Bluefield is testing its technology with aircraft. It plans on launching the first two satellites of its constellation in 2019 with eventually 20 in orbit to cover the entire planet.