More than a decade’s work on breeding low methane-emitting sheep by a diverse group of scientists, engineers and farm managers has won another major award.
At the Primary Industries NZ Awards in Auckland this month, the team led by AgResearch senior scientist Dr Suzanne Rowe took out the science & research trophy. It follows the same project winning the supreme title at the Science New Zealand Awards at the start of this year.
AgResearch emeritus scientist Tony Conner said the team has worked in the field to find ways to practically measure emissions from animals behind the farm gate, in the workshop to engineer technology to capture methane profiles, and the laboratory to really understand the impact of selecting animals for low methane right down to the molecular level.
“The team has met weekly for over 10 years and together they have given hundreds of presentations in venues from farmer’s wool sheds to large international conferences, with over 50 peer-reviewed papers and proceedings on these low methane sheep lines.”
Support for the research has come from the agricultural industry via the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGgRc) and the government via the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC).
The team has worked alongside the sheep industry from the outset, Tony said.
The founder animals for the research flocks were selected from the national flock, to ensure that the research was immediately relevant to farmers keen for a tool to lower their emissions.
Tony said the team has clearly demonstrated that methane emissions can be lowered by breeding “and the research has provided key insights into the underpinning physiology and biology of the complex evolutionary mechanism within ruminants.
“Importantly, they never lost sight of the end goal: to use their science to offer real world solutions.”
They’ve shown that genetic variation among ruminant animals for methane emissions is heritable and that they can be selected with significant rates of genetic gain without impacting on selection for improvement in other valued traits, especially meat quality.
It’s a global first for any species of livestock, and given the fight against atmospheric warming is a global one, the technology and principles have been exported to multiple countries to help researchers and breeders worldwide.
The AgResearch scientists are onto their third generation of low-methane sheep now and the best performers for that trait burp close to 13% less methane than the highest emitters per kilogram of feed eaten.
Incorporation of the low methane breeding trait into New Zealand’s entire sheep flock is conservatively estimated to result in methane reductions of at least 0.5 to 1% annually and is anticipated to be maintained at this rate each generation as selection is continued. That’s significant as it accumulates over time.
Last year the team measured around 5000 sheep on farm and the breeding values are now being incorporated into national selection indices and thus are going out to tens of thousands of animals.
Dr Suzanne Rowe is particularly excited that learnings and knowledge she and her team have gained with sheep can inform similar work being done with cattle by the likes of LIC, CRV and others.
The four key contributors to the award-winning team are Suzanne, John McEwan, Peter Janssen and Graeme Attwood, supported by a wider team including Arjan Jonker, Sharon Hickey, Timothy Bilton, Hannah Henry, Brooke Bryson and Steve Gebbie.