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Low methane producing sheep could be way forward for NZ

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Sheep giving off lower methane emissions are being bred by scientists in New Zealand . Methane from livestock is responsible for 33 per cent of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. As part of international agreements, New Zealand is committed to cutting these emissions.

“New Zealand has the issue that they can’t do this by cutting urban emissions or planting trees,” AgResearch senior scientist Suzanne Rowe said.

Scientists at Invermay have been involved in a five year programme to measure whether breeding sheep for low methane is likely to affect reproduction, productivity and health.

“The biggest part of this programme hasn’t been measuring animals for methane, it’s been looking at what happens with your breed outcomes for lower methane.”

The study included using sheep bred for high and low methane over two generations and using portable accumulation chambers to record methane emissions from the sheep.

Rowe said the study has found that the amount of methane a sheep loses during digestion is partly controlled by genetics. The chambers recorded short term measures of gas emissions, and may also be informative for the metabolic rate of sheep and may be related to feed intake. Preliminary results from the study showed sheep could be bred for low methane safely, Rowe said.

Most traits are unaffected by but there is evidence to show that low emitting animals are leaner and grow more wool. The next step in the study directly relates to another study being carried out at Invermay. Scientists will study the methane selection lines for feed efficiency, as well as measure enough sheep to get accurate breeding values for breeders for methane emission.

The residual feed intake study is measuring the feed efficiency of sheep. Residual feed intake is the difference between what an animal should be given to eat (based on its liveweight and growth rate) and what it actually eats.

To generate data on New Zealand maternal sheep a purpose built feed intake facility, capable of measuring 200 animals at a time, was established by AgResearch in 2015.

Genetics senior scientist Tricia Johnson said they wanted to identify whether there was genetic variation. The study has shown it is partly heritable, with a first estimate of 0.46 per cent, she said. There are practical barriers to the study, with the sheep being fed indoors on lucerne pellets instead of on pasture. “It’s not a perfect transition but there is enough there that there is a relationship.”

The study is set to conclude mid-next year. However, options are being explored to continue testing industry animals through the facility to contribute towards data which will allow the genetic variability in feed efficiency to be captured and utilised in sheep breeding programmes of the future.

Source: Stuff /

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