First year of research on raising low-methane cows shows promise

The research measures methane emissions from the burps of young bulls. Photo / Provided

New research has confirmed that the genetics of bulls play a role in the amount of methane they emit, highlighting the potential for farmers to breed low-methane cows in the future.

The news follows the first year of a research program led by New Zealand artificial breeding companies LIC and CRV and funded by the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Center (NZAGRC).

The research measures methane emissions from the burps of young bulls intended to sire the next generation of New Zealand dairy cows.

Together, LIC and CRV sire 90% of New Zealand’s dairy herd from their artificial breeding bulls.

Results from the first year, where the feed consumption and methane emissions of 281 bulls were measured, revealed that there is genetic variation in the amount of methane emitted, after taking into account the feed consumed by bulls, with the weakest bulls emitting about 15 to 20 per cent less methane than average.

LIC chief scientist Richard Spelman said the results were “a big step forward” for the research.

“The amount of methane a bull or cow produces is directly related to the amount of food it eats – in general, the more an animal eats – the more methane it emits.

“But after accounting for differences in bulls’ feed intake, we still see genetic variation in their methane emissions, which proves that genetics plays a role.”

The researchers had a sliding scale from low methane-emitting bulls (less than 18 g methane/kg dry matter consumed) to higher bulls (more than 28 g methane/kg dry matter consumed), Spelman said. .

“This is the variation we wanted to see and we’re excited to use it to our advantage.”

Although the research is still in its early stages, Spelman said the results show promise for helping farmers address environmental challenges and reduce on-farm emissions.

“New Zealand farmers are striving to meet the challenge of being profitable and sustainable, and research like this will help ensure that reducing a farm’s emissions does not have to come at the expense of reducing her milk production.

CRV Grass-Fed Genetics Director Peter van Elzakker said results from the trial’s first year aligned with the company’s methane work with Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“The findings in New Zealand are a significant step forward in our work developing tools to help New Zealand dairy farmers reduce their emissions. They give us all even more confidence that genetics can be part of the solution.

Harry Clark, director of the NZAGRC, was also pleased with the initial results.

“Low methane breeding is now available to sheep farmers and there are signs that we may be able to offer the same to the dairy sector.

The next step in the research was to see if the genetic variation responsible for methane emissions in growing young bulls was replicated in their daughters, Spelman said.

“This year, in partnership with Pāmu, we will breed bulls that we have identified as being high or low methane emitters.

“After their daughters are born, we will measure their shows as they grow and during their first milking season to make sure they are representative of their fathers.

“This is where rubber will really hit the road in our goal of providing farmers with a low-methane breeding solution.”

The second year of research is now underway with the measurement of methane emissions from approximately 300 young bulls from LIC and CRV’s 2022 Sire Proving Scheme.

A research program led by artificial breeding companies LIC and CRV is taking a step closer to making it possible for farmers to raise low-methane-emitting cows.  Photo / Provided
A research program led by artificial breeding companies LIC and CRV is taking a step closer to making it possible for farmers to raise low-methane-emitting cows. Photo / Provided

Learn more about the research program

How the program is run
• The bulls involved in the trial are housed in a barn so that their feed consumption can be measured
• Bulls use food throughout the day. They eat alfalfa hay cubes via feed troughs that measure each bull’s amount of food
• The bulls independently visit the Greenfeed machine (a special methane measuring device)
• They are encouraged to visit the machine as they are given a small feed of pellets which keeps them in the machine for three to five minutes – enough time to get a methane reading (ruminants burp every 1-2 minutes)
• The bulls are under 24/7 video surveillance so scientists can monitor them remotely. It also allows scientists to go back and review the images if they see strange data from the machines that needs further explanation.

The research program, led by artificial breeding companies LIC and CRV, measures the bulls' feed intake and methane emissions - in the form of burping.  Photo / Provided
The research program, led by artificial breeding companies LIC and CRV, measures the bulls’ feed intake and methane emissions – in the form of burping. Photo / Provided

Chronology
2020: Pilot test measuring the methane of 20 young bulls completed
2021: Methane measured from approx. 300 young bulls (LIC bulls and CRV 2021 Sire Proving Scheme) completed
2022: Methane measured from approx. 300 young bulls (LIC bulls and CRV’s 2022 Sire Proving Scheme) in progress. Group of cows mated to high and low methane bulls from 2021: Sire Proving Schemes
2023: Methane measured from approx. 300 young bulls (LIC bulls and CRV 2023 Sire Proving Scheme). The first progeny of high and low methane bulls is born
2024: Methane measurements are taken on one-year-old girls
2025: Daughters of high and low methane lactating bulls – methane measurements taken on daughters to ensure they are representative of methane measurements captured during the trial and validate heritability, for example, low methane bulls produce low methane offspring, high methane bulls produce high methane offspring

If this succeeds, then:

2026: Final milestone – all artificial breeding bulls in LIC and CRV can have methane breeding value, allowing breeders to select bulls that will produce low methane cows.