NZ’s ‘smart cows’ aim to take the wind out of methane emissions

New Zealand’s scientists are breeding ‘smart’ sheep and cows as they embark on world-leading ways to reduce the release of methane from cows and sheep.

The country – which relies financially on a strong agriculture sector – has been looking at ways to reduce the release of methane gas from sheep and cattle, which account for one third of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions –  the single largest contributor in the country.

The country’s new Zero Carbon Act aims to reduce all greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050. It includes a specific goal of reducing biogenic methane by 10% by 2030, and 24-47% by 2050.

In Waikato, Dr Bjorn Oback from AgResearch has been given NZ$10m in government funding to design a “climate-smart cow” using gene editing.

Oback said some cattle which produced 30 per cent less methane had been identified.

“We can then identify the underlying gene variants, once these are known you can take them in isolation. We’ll also be looking at other eco-efficient variants such as improved feed conversion efficiency or reduced urinary nitrogen excretion.”

“We’re taking a high-performing elite dairy background, and then we’re putting mutations on top of it.”

As well as manipulating the genes that control methane emissions, the five-year research also aims to design cattle that will thrive in a climate-altered future, such as creating cows that are lighter in colour, making them more heat-tolerant.

Meanwhile, AgResearch scientist Suzanne Rowe, has been breeding low-emission sheep which also produce more wool and leaner meat than normal sheep. 

“We have shown, using sheep bred for high and low methane over two generations, that the amount of methane a sheep produces during digestion is partly controlled by genetics. We have demonstrated a 10 per cent difference in methane produced between the average sheep in both the high and low methane breeding lines.”

The Cawthron Institute in Nelson is more commonly associated with New Zealand’s strong aquaculture sector, but has also been contributing to the methane reduction research.

It has received government funding to cultivate and research a red native seaweed known as Asparagopsis armata, which has been proven to reduce stock methane emissions by as much as 80% when added as a feed supplement at quantities as low as 2%.

The early stage research is promising. Climate smart cows, however, are at least five years away. Given their complicated life cycle, the mass roll-out of Asparagopsis armata is probably five to ten years away.

New Zealand’s agricultural innovation has received international attention on the conference circuit: In 2018 it hosted the prestigious 11th World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production (WCGALP). This year it hosts the World Hereford Conference and agribusiness summit the 2020 Nuffield International Triennial Conference.


(via The Guardian, Stuff, AgResearch, Tourism New Zealand)

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