Carbon

How much of a role should genetics play in reducing livestock methane?

Eric Barker, 02/11/2023

Southern multi-breed cattle feeding at Tullimba.

WITH pressure on the livestock industry to reduce its methane emissions, genetic selection seems like it will play a major role in reaching industry and company targets.

How much of a role it should play was canvassed in a panel session at a recent summit in Armidale, held by the Australian Genetics and Breeding Unit. Involved were Christian Duff, Angus Australia, Matthew Kelly, AA Co, Geoff Lindon, AWI, Michael Crowley, Herefords Australia, Olivia Lawson, Paringa Livestock, Grant Burbidge, Burbidge Farms, Darryl Savage, NAP Co.

The summit heard from researchers looking into creating estimated breeding values for methane, with large scale research underway for both the northern and southern industries.

Many noted that the specific methane EBV was a long-term solution, including Christian Duff who said a lot of research was still needed in the field.

“I think we need to go pretty hard with genetics in this field, but I am not sure how much genetics can contribute to our 2030 ambitions – it is getting pretty close and I think we are more talking about 2050,” Mr Duff said.

“Genetics are going to be part of the solution and I am hoping the research will back that up. But I think we need further co-investment to collect more data.

“We also need to think about the other aspects of sustainability and an area we haven’t talked a lot about are the disease resilience-type traits.”

Attracting funding was also part of the discussions, with many talking about the difficulties of passing cost onto consumers. Matthew Kelly said research needed to be done on a large scale, which was difficult with the cost of the current research equipment.

“Given the cost of green feed machine, the co-investment model is key and we need to find more scalable technology for measuring big numbers of animals,” he said.

“Finding ways to monetise the work is also a challenge and I think we need to lobby governments to make sure the right signals are there. It is still a little bit ambiguous about how much our customers are willing to pay in this space.”

Moving fast in for genetics

While the research into methane-related EBVs is looking more like a long-term solution there was plenty of discussion about factoring methane into traits in the short-term – with knowledge that any efficiency-related traits can lower methane output.

Olivia Lawson said the best thing about genetics was that the work could start quickly.

“Genetics is such a powerful tool and as a producer it is a no brainer – it is free and it is something everyone can choose to do,” Ms Lawson said.

“Unlike the technologies that are being trialled, which are so costly and only really available for the grainfed industry. We need to be focusing on the grassfed industry and the national cow herd – licks and boluses might become available, they are a way off.”

Darryl Savage said it was important for the genetics industry to move quickly in the field of methane.

“We need to move quickly to have the capacity to select for lower methane, the general public associate red meat with methane and there will be no sympathy or understanding if we say ‘we can’t select for that yet’,” Mr Savage said.

“Then individual producers can make decisions about what sort of economic weighting they put on that particular trait – but having the tools in the toolbox is the first step.”

Driving adoption of more efficient practices

The panel was asked if the push for lower methane was a way to drive adoption of some of the more efficiency-related traits, which have not attracted much attention in the past. Some of the traits associated with lower methane include feed conversion, weight gain, lower mature cow weight and fertility.

Michael Crowley, who recently started his role at Herefords Australia after 14 years with Meat & Livestock Australia, said he discussed it with many of his members.

“This new role has been an interesting journey because I feel like I am in a position to drive adoption of the stuff I have been working on for the past 15 years,” he said.

“I have been saying to them ‘what if it means you don’t have to do much different, you just have to do it better and then we can tell your story for you better?’.

“It is something new and I think people know they need to do something about it – but I think we take them along the journey with this one.”

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Comments

  1. Fred Chudleigh, 02/11/2023

    It may be worthwhile revisiting past analyses that considered the potential of genetic selection for reducing methane emissions across the national beef herd. Alford et. al. (2006) in “The impact of breeding to reduce residual feed intake on enteric methane emissions from the Australian beef industry” identified that “For the national herd, differential lags and limits to adoption were assumed for northern and southern Australia. The cumulative reduction in national emissions was 568 100t of methane over 25 years, with annual emissions in year 25 being 3.1% lower than in year 1”. Even so, the authors were very positive and concluded “that selection for reduced RFI will lead to substantial and lasting methane abatement”. I suppose, in theory, if the suitable EBV’s were available now that they may make a (possibly) measurable difference by 2050.

    • Angus Hobson, 03/11/2023

      Fred, it would important to understand if selection for lower RFI will compromise maternal efficiency. Leaner and/or more feed efficient cattle are not always the most resilient or reproductively efficient, especially under environmental pressure (this applies to ewes and dairy cows as well). I suspect non-genetic options (including rumen modification, supplements, etc) will almost certainly confer far greater reductions in methane than genetic selection – possibly without the trade-offs?

      • Fred Chudleigh, 06/11/2023

        Hi Angus, I agree with you. I tried not show my cynicism re such claims and probably should have expanded the original comment. If I offered anyone a 3% pay rise to be made very gradually over the next 25 years – based on a technology yet to be developed and adopted, I would expect to have my offer rejected. There are likely to be many better investments to be made.

  2. mick alexander, 02/11/2023

    Sometimes it is difficult to see the forest for the trees – in a regenerative grazing system, any methane is degraded at ground level by the hydroxyl ion just as in the troposphere. Hydroxyl ions are produced by the sun energy splitting of water vapour and as a cow emits methane, it is immediately degraded. In fact 100 times more hydroxyl is produced than a cow burps in a regenerative grazing system. Now the way to make a cow more efficient to reduce methane production is to simply improve its nutrition – this solution is soooo fast to achieve and not working for years. step 1 analyse the pasture for trace and macro nutrients as well as ndf, cp, energy etc. step 2 assess the animal status (BCS and target weight), step 3 design a targeted nutritional supplement plan to achieve desired weight gain. However, will need to source a qualified beef nutritionist to achieve this. it is not possible to achieve nutritional gains just by altering genetics as poor quality feed is poor quality feed.

  3. Mike Introvigne, 02/11/2023

    Are we really wasting time and effort on reducing methane when the world scientific community has agreed that methane is not a major problem as it recycles in the system.
    Sometimes we seem to want to create a problem to then rush headlong into finding a solution.
    We should now be focusing attention on the fact that unless we see a significant price recovery there won’t be any cows left to produce methane.

    • Matthew Della Gola, 03/11/2023

      I fully support anyone who wants to change their farming practices because they believe thats how they want produce. Only time and your bank account will prove you right. Everyone here is making very sensible commentary. The overwhelming concern from articles like this is its divisive nature. One point being that all of these reports fail to constantly put in perspective just how small the farming input is on a planetary scale. Global Landfill emits more in a month than ag in almost 12months. That’s not to say we shouldnt do something but to potentially alter your breed for a single trait has been demonstrated by enough breeds now that are determined to increase imf at the detriment of feed efficiency. That one example blows any hope of reducing methane “genetically “.
      Cheers Matthew Della Gola

  4. Angus Hobson, 02/11/2023

    It would be good to understand what the likely mechanism is underpinning lower methane output on a genetic basis – no doubt there are animals with a lower net methane output per kilogram of dry matter or unit of ME…but are these differences significant?

    And/or is the bulk of any difference in methane production actually a function of differences in net feed intake?

    If it’s the latter, we need to tread carefully – as the CRC’s Maternal Efficiency Project identified, the most feed efficient (and thus lower methane output) animals also had some of the lowest maternal efficiency in terms of return to oestrus rates and thus calves born over a lifetime.

    Like everything in biology, I suspect there’s no free lunch – let’s make sure we understand the trade-offs.

  5. Charles Nason, 02/11/2023

    What does not seem to have been raised in the conversation around reducing methane is the question of what associated traits may arise especially if they might compromise adaptability
    If you select for mature cow size , you tend to raise birth weight and thus calving problems
    If you select for feed efficiency , you tend to get a leaner animal with less proportion of fat adversely affecting fertility especially in the north
    So should we be asking if the singular focus on reducing methane may have deleterious traits associated with it ?
    Sometimes these traits are independent but generally not
    Maybe a geneticist might allay my fears re possible associated deleterious traits
    Hopefully these questions have been raised and answered and I am not aware of that work
    And poor diet quality seems to favour rumen flora with metabolic processes producing methane

    • Jock Douglas, 03/11/2023

      Good questions raised on the methane/genetic selection issue Charles. There must be better ways other than genetic selection to reduce bovine methane emissions that can be readily and widely applied – and can maintain or improve productivity.

  6. David Smith, 02/11/2023

    Understanding of heritable traits such as pasture feed intake and feed efficiency through scalable platforms such as smart ear tags, has the potential to not only understand and reduce the methane emissions but also optimise grass assets to significantly improve profitability.

  7. Chris Davis, 02/11/2023

    Can someone explain to me why we are collectively busting our gut to solve the methane emmission problem with cattle when millions of times more methane is emitted by rotting rainforest? I’ve tested the air up at Nhulunbuy and again on sale day at the IRLX yards and rotting vegetation wins the score hands down.
    >16ppm at Nhulunbuy and less than 4 in the yards.

    Chris D

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