Low Methane Sheep

April 2021

Lowering greenhouse gases by breeding low methane emitting sheep.

Green rolling hills studded with fluffy white sheep is an image New Zealand has traded on for decades, both to promote our wool and meat, as well as entice visitors to the country. But they are increasingly under scrutiny (as are many sectors of our primary industries) as contributors to the global greenhouse gas problem. Now they may be part of the solution.

AgResearch’s Dr Suzanne Rowe has been at the forefront of the collaboration of scientists that has produced a world-first breed of low methane emitting sheep that will be available to Kiwi farmers by 2023. Sheep emit methane as they digest grass and other feeds – and very soon New Zealand will be able to demonstrate to the world that it can reduce those methane emissions year on year, through a breeding programme rolled out on a nationwide scale.

The world’s first low methane sheep are the result of a 10-year multi-million dollar collaboration between AgResearch, the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGGRC) and the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC), supported by the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Dr Suzanne Rowe says low methane is a breedable trait and that the resulting sheep are healthy and productive. She says this development is significant for New Zealand’s agricultural sector, giving sheep farmers a practical tool to help lower greenhouse gases. “Until now the only way farmers could lower on-farm emissions has been to constantly improve their overall farming efficiency. What we have produced is an animal that is up there with elite flocks. We are seeing more lean growth, carcass yield, wool production and better parasite resistance, so there are no negative trade-offs. Farmers can rest assured that with these low methane sheep there will be no impact on farm productivity – these are sheep that are sustainable, both in terms of farm profit, as well as being better for the environment as we play our part in lowering greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The 10-year research programme took 1,000 sheep, divided them into closed flocks of high emitting and low emitting animals, and established that these traits were passed on to successive generations. "Importantly, the gains are cumulative. In year one the reduction of methane is one percent and after three generations we have 11 percent less methane per kilogram of feed eaten,” says Dr Rowe. "Low methane is passed onto the next generation. We can breed for it and there are no detrimental side effects.”

Working at AgResearch’s Invermay campus at Mosgiel and on its Woodlands Research Farm near Invercargill, Dr Rowe and her team used portable accumulation chambers to record methane emissions from the sheep. Now Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) Genetics has launched a new ‘methane research breeding value’ to help select important traits that ram breeders want to bolster within their flock. Farmers will have access to low methane rams within two years – the time it will take to breed and grow rams on a commercial scale.

Dr Rowe says the low methane sheep breed is a global first for any species of livestock. “This is a significant development for New Zealand’s agricultural sector, giving sheep farmers a practical tool to help lower greenhouse gases. Until now the only way farmers could lower on-farm methane emissions has been to constantly improve their overall farming efficiency.”

Sheep stud breeders are being encouraged by PGgRc to have their rams measured in AgResearch’s portable chambers that measure the animal’s methane emissions, allowing their methane breeding value to be calculated. Each animal spends 50 minutes in the chamber twice within a 14-day period. 

Southland ram breeders Leon and Wendy Black were among the first to invest in measuring methane emissions and start the journey of building methane breeding value in their Blackdale stud rams. As a leading ram breeder, Leon says breeding sheep with lower methane emissions is about looking to the future. “It takes time, but you’ve got to make a start”, he advises.

As a former director of both B+LNZ and the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, Leon has had insight into the development of methane reduction technologies, and believes for the sheep and beef sectors, genetics are the most effective way of meeting emissions reductions targets. 

Breeders can find further information at : https://www.cognitoforms.com/BLNZGenetics/SheepMethaneMeasurement




Showdown Productions Ltd.   Rural Delivery Series 16 2021