“We are looking for that needle in the haystack: a low-methane, parasite-resistant sheep with a high growth rate and high lambing rates,” says sheep breeders, Rob and Jo Hodgkins of Kaiapoi Farm, Hertfordshire, who are involved in a new ground-breaking project, which aims to breed ‘ultra-low-emission’ sheep, writes, farming journalist, Catherina Cunnane.
Precision-farming and innovation experts, Agri-EPI Centre, have joined forces with the Hodgkins to measure emissions from a group of Romney rams and identify those that produce the least methane.
The Hodgkins will choose rams with the lowest output and breed from them, creating youngstock which, researchers are led to believe, should also produce less methane.
The Innovate UK-funded project – which could provide notable benefits to the UK and international sheep sector and to the pursuit of sustainable food production – capitalises on work already completed on Romney sheep in New Zealand, which demonstrated that methane emission levels could be a heritable trait in sheep.
The Kaiapoi flock has strong genetic links to the animals involved in that research project, and researchers predict that the flock’s methane production could fall by up to 25%.
The aforementioned research was conducted by agri-science-innovation organisation, AgResearch, which also designed the portable accumulation chamber (PAC) being used in the Agri-EPI Centre-Kaiapoi Farm Ultra-Low Emission Sheep Project.
In the latest research project, SRUC will oversee in-field methane measurements by holding each animal in a portable accumulation chamber (PAC), collecting the gas it emits over the course of one hour, breaking it down by type and analysing it.
Moreover, the project will also examine increasing meat and wool yield with a view to reducing the amount of carbon produced per kilo of meat and wool (1.4kg of wool stores, 1kg of carbon).
“A few people are looking at methane reduction in cows, but our sheep-breeding project is unique. Because sheep give birth to only one lamb or set of lambs each year, we need to take a relatively long-term view of the project,”
The Hodgkins predict that within ten years, domestic and global commercial interest in low-methane livestock will be “very high”.
By doing the work just now, they believe they will be in “a strong position to maintain our commercial advantage”.
Part of solution
Rob Hodgkins from Kaiapoi Farm said: “This project is great because it demonstrates how livestock producers can be part of the solution to produce food sustainably rather than being the problem.”
“It is not the whole answer, obviously, but if we can cut methane emissions by 15% without reducing productivity and do so relatively quickly and cheaply, it would go some way.”
“A few people are looking at methane reduction in cows, but our sheep-breeding project is unique.”
“Because sheep give birth to only one lamb or set of lambs each year, we need to take a relatively long-term view of the project.”
“As technology demonstrators, the more we breed successfully and test, the more we can determine the efficiencies gained by rearing cross-bred animals on a New Zealand system.”
“There are hundreds of thousands of sheep this could be extended to across the UK.”
“In a few years, sheep producers will be able to look at what we have done, what we have achieved in terms of methane reduction and, as a breed society, individual or collection of farmers consider this as an avenue that they can go down too.”
Ross Robertson, head of mixed farming at Agri-EPI Centre, added that methane emissions from livestock production are an “important” contributor to climate change, and farmers are under pressure to act.”
“Agri-EPI Centre conducts trials with farmers across the UK to test innovations and to learn about their current and anticipated needs.”
“In the case of sheep, valuable rams with high estimated breeding values (EBVs) may still be producing high levels of methane.”
“However, if we can breed a demonstrable reduction into the system, the potential for climate change mitigation and for the economic health of the sector is very strong indeed,” Roberston concluded.