Breeding more climate friendly cows is one step closer for New Zealand dairy farmers after a Waikato trial finds a possible link between a bulls’ genetics and the amount of methane they produce.
The LIC and CRV pilot trial measured feed intake and methane emissions – in the form of burps – from 20 young bulls destined to father the next generation of New Zealand’s dairy cows.
LIC chief scientist Richard Spelman says results from the pilot trial are promising.
“Methane production primarily relates to how much an animal eats,” says Richard.
“We’ve accounted for this and we’re still seeing variation which suggests genetics plays a role in a dairy bull’s methane emissions – now we need more data to prove it.”
The next stage
The research will now progress to a much larger study where operations have scaled up to collect measurements from 300 young bulls, the full intake from LIC and CRV’s Sire Proving Scheme.
“If this genetic link is confirmed, farmers will ultimately be able to breed low methane-emitting cows from low methane-emitting bulls.”
Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor attended the launch of the project at LIC’s farm outside of Hamilton.
“Each one of the cows we have in New Zealand now produces a whole lot more for the same inputs that we put in maybe 20 or 30 years ago,” says Minister O’Connor.
“That kind of progressive development that we’ve seen in production, we want to now see in methane reduction and I’m sure we can do that. We are innovative, we’re creative and we’re cooperative.”
Although methane emissions have been shown to be heritable, Richard says LIC and CRV will carry out additional research to validate their findings.
“We will be methane testing daughters from the bulls that are identified to be high or low methane emitters to check their emissions are representative of their father’s.
“It’s a long term project but it has the potential to deliver real benefits to farmers in the future by providing another tool to reduce their farm emissions.”
New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre funds the project. Director, Harry Clark, is delighted with the outcomes of the pilot trial.
“We have been highly successful in New Zealand in breeding low-emitting sheep and this preliminary work with the bulls is a positive sign that we should be able to achieve the same for the dairy sector,” says Harry.
Richard says while breeding for more climate friendly cows is the focus, it’s still a balancing act with other genetic traits.
“It’s really important that we understand the genetic relationships between methane and traits like milk production and fertility. We don’t want to find we are selecting against methane and inadvertently breeding cows that are less fertile.”
The welfare of the bulls taking part in the trial is being constantly monitored by LIC, with oversight from the Ruakura Ethics Committee, which has approved the project.
The bulls have the freedom to move around in their pens; eat, drink and sleep when they wish.