July 28, 2021
Company aims to breed cattle that burp less methane, helping New Zealand meet emissions targets
Cattle genetics firm Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC), which is headquartered in Hamilton, New Zealand, is investing millions into breeding cattle that burp less methane into the atmosphere — a move that could allow New Zealand's dairy industry to keep its cows and meet emissions targets.
The Climate Change Commission has suggested livestock numbers would have to be cut by 15% by 2030 to meet methane targets.
But it comes at a cost, with the agriculture sector warning fewer cows would mean a big drop in export income and pleading for more time to research animal genetics instead.
The New Zealand government has until the end of the year to decide on whether to go ahead with cutting stock numbers but the clock is ticking already with it likely to make up its mind before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Scotland in November.
New Zealand passed "peak cow" a few years ago. StatsNZ figures showed there were 6.3 million dairy cattle in 2019, an increase of 82% on the 3.4 million recorded in 1990.
LIC board chairman Murray King said cutting back stock numbers was a "blunt tool" to use to meet climate targets.
Instead, the cooperative was investing heavily into dairy genetics to produce more efficient animals.
"When we talk about reducing emissions on farm, the first thing people think about is reducing cow numbers.
"But we can develop genetics that allow farmers to have fewer cows, or the same number, which produce more milk and lower emissions."
LIC had committed $17.1 million to research and development for 2021-22, one of the largest investments in the primary sector. It kicked off a pilot trial to breed more climate-friendly cows at a project farm in the Waikato in 2019.
The trial was in partnership with artificial breeding company CRV, funded by New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre. It measured the feed as well as the emissions, or burps, for 20 young bulls.
Methane production related to how much an animal ate but the trial also discovered genetics played a part in a bull's emissions as well.
In May, the trial moved to a larger study involving 300 young bulls, and their offspring would be tested to identify which were high and low methane emitters.
By 2025, it was expected all the breeding bulls from LIC and CRV would have a methane value allowing farmers to select bulls which would produce lower methane emitting cows.
LIC had also developed a "hoofprint" test to show an estimate of each bull's nitrogen and methane emissions. In addition, it had recorded increased interest from farmers using its sexed semen which produced high quality heifer replacements and fewer male, or bobby, calves.
King said it showed farmers were willing to adopt new solutions to help them meet sustainability goals.
Lincoln University's Jacqueline Rowarth said genetic improvement to animals was a long-term prospect and one which needed more time to produce results.
"LIC has a long-term strategy for methane reduction in breeding. AgResearch has been making advances with sheep breeding," said Rowarth. "In the shorter term, it might be feed and additives that make the ongoing difference [to reduce emissions]."