New Zealand develops world's first low methane sheep

It is a global first for any species of livestock.
It is a global first for any species of livestock. Photo credit: Getty

New Zealand sheep farmers can now breed animals that emit less methane with the development of the world's first low methane sheep.

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.

Interested farmers will have access to rams within two years - the time it will take to breed and grow rams on a commercial scale.

The launch of the new breeding tool follows a 10-year multi-million dollar collaboration between the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGGRC), New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) and AgResearch, supported by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and Ministry for Primary Industries.

PGGRC general manager Mark Aspin said the new breeding value takes advantage of how individual sheep's levels of methane emission vary and these differences are passed on to the next generation.

"This is a global first for any species of livestock. Launching the methane breeding value gives New Zealand's sheep sector a practical tool to help lower our agricultural greenhouse gases," he said.

Aspin said it was a significant development for the farming sector.

"Up until now, the only option available to farmers wanting to lower their greenhouse gas emissions has been to constantly improve their overall farming efficiency.

"This takes us a step further - towards actually lowering sheep methane emissions, in keeping with the sector's commitment to work towards reducing its greenhouse emissions."

Although progress via breeding could be slow - around one percent per year, assuming a breeder was selecting only for methane - it was cumulative and had no negative impact on productivity.

However Aspin said it was important to note that the biggest influence on methane emissions was the amount of feed an animal eats. 

"To that end, the consortium is working on another three technologies, with a focus on reducing the amount of methane generated by feed. So, by breeding sheep that produce less methane per mouthful eaten - as other methane-reducing technologies come on stream - the influence of these sheep on the national flock's methane production becomes compounding."

In recent B+LNZ research of 1000 farmers, "tools and information to reduce greenhouse gas emissions" were among farmers' top five on-farm priorities.