A low methane sheep genetics project to give more farmers access to animals to help reduce the production of methane from their farm has been launched.
The $4.2 million low methane sheep programme, supported by a range of organisations including B+LNZ and MPI through the Climate Emergency Response Fund, will use genetic selection to accelerate the uptake of low methane sheep among commercial farmers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the New Zealand flock.
“The carbon footprint of New Zealand sheep meat is already world-leading; however we want to give farmers the tools to keep progressing and genetics is a key tool to deliver this,” says B+LNZ chief executive Sam McIvor.
“Genetic selection for low methane sheep is currently the only confirmed technology that New Zealand farmers can deploy to reduce on-farm emissions.
“This project aims to offer every sheep farmer access to low methane genetics, help them understand the genetic merit of their flock for low methane traits and allow them to be rewarded for breeding toward lower methane genetics.
“Ultimately, it will pave the way for genetically lower methane-producing sheep becoming widespread in the New Zealand sheep flock as quickly as possible, which will benefit farmers, the wider industry and the planet.
“We know some farmers are anxious about how they can reduce their on-farm emissions, this project will make this technology available to many more farmers in the next few years.
“Genetics has underpinned the massive efficiency gains of the New Zealand sheep flock over the last 30 years and this project will help genetics support the industry for the next 30 years.
“B+LNZ will also continue to work on a range of initiatives to make as many tools available as possible to help farmers reduce their emissions.”
B+LNZ greenhouse gases and environmental research senior adviser Mark Aspin says the low methane credentials of rams used in sheep flocks will be counted in on farm GHG calculators with the aim for these reductions to be captured in the country’s national GHG inventory.
“This programme will benefit both sheep breeders and commercial farmers. Genetic selection for methane requires both genotyping and direct measurement (phenotyping) information from the breeding flocks to accurately generate breeding values.
“These breeding values allow rams to be compared and selected to advance the low methane trait in the breeding and commercial sheep flocks.
“This project will create a greater supply of high-quality low methane rams across breeds available for use by sheep farmers.”
As part of the project, at least 5000 phenotypes (methane measurements of individual animals) will be collected every year by AgResearch, using portable accumulation chambers (PAC) trailers.
Genotyping many of the sires used across the breeding industry will allow the project to generate breeding values for methane for as many sires used at stud and in the commercial industry as possible.
B+LNZ’s nProve system will also be strengthened to allow commercial farmers to track the rams entering their flock and identify the genetic gain they are making.
A growing number of rams with a low methane breeding value will be available to commercial farmers across the major breeding groups in the next three years and beyond, says Aspin.
Globally, New Zealand has led the way in pioneering genetics to reduce methane, having already successfully developed and deployed the ability to genetically select for lower methane emissions in sheep following a ten-year collaboration between B+LNZ, the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGGRC), the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) and AgResearch. Parallel work in cattle and deer is also underway.
Since 2019, methane selection has been successfully piloted with 18 leading sheep breeding flocks through a PGGRC-funded initiative supporting B+LNZ Genetics’ nProve and AgResearch service.
In the pilot rollout, leading breeders with genotyped flocks were invited to have their flock phenotype measured using the PAC trailer, which travelled across the country and measured the flocks on farm. Around 15,000 sheep were measured on farm for methane emissions.