New Zealand breeds first ‘low-methane’ sheep

AUCKLAND, 3 Dec 2019: 

New Zealand has launched a genetic programme – the first of its kind in the world – to boost the breeding of sheep which emit less methane, one of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

“This breeding approach will only currently provide benefit to the sheep industry, which accounts for around just under 20% of NZ emissions,” said Mark Aspin, general manager of the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium.

In New Zealand, a country of a little less than 4 million inhabitants and a sheep population of around 28 million, around 80% of total methane emissions are caused by livestock.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand Genetics (B+LNG) and PGGRC announced last week they were launching a genetic programme to reduce emissions based on “breeding value”, which identifies the characteristics that need to be enhanced in order to improve the sheep.

One of these values is the level of methane emissions, which each breeder is required to measure in a portion of their flock on chambers onboard a trailer that travels to individual farms.

The methane emission emitted by each sheep, especially when it belches or vomits, are measured in two 50-minute sessions with a 14-day interval in-between.

The programme is based on a research-project that began 10 years ago and is based on the information each sheep emits a different quantity of methane and the differences are passed over to the next generations.

“We have been working on the research behind this since 2008. The measurements have been trialled for six or so years and fine-tuned as a way to measure genotyped breeding stock,” Aspin said.

The results would allow breeders to select rams which have a lower emission levels and use them for breeding, in a process that could provide results in around two years, the time it takes for an animal to develop commercially.

B+LNZ CEO Sam Mclvor said farmers had already shown interest in the project, adding that a survey showed reducing greenhouse gas emissions was among the top five priorities of the sector.

A number of countries – including Ireland, Norway and Australia – have expressed interest in the programme, noted Aspin, who said he was confident its impact would increase “as the genetic changes are compounded each generation”.

In November, New Zealand passed a new law to bring carbon emissions down to zero in 2050 and reduce the biological methane emissions from the agricultural sector by 10%, until 2030.