A pioneering project to breed an ultra-low emission sheep is about to start in Hertfordshire.
Precision-farming and innovation experts, Agri-EPI Centre are working with sheep-breeders, Rob and Jo Hodgkins of Kaiapoi Farm in Hertfordshire to measure emissions from a group of Romney rams and identify those that produce the least methane. The Hodgkins will select the rams with the lowest output and breed from them, creating youngstock which should also produce less methane.
The project, funded by Innovate UK, builds on work already done on Romney sheep in New Zealand, which demonstrated that methane emission levels could be a heritable trait in sheep. The Kaiapoi flock has strong genetic links to the animals involved in that research project, and it is predicted that the flock’s methane production could be reduced by up to 25 per cent.
SRUC will oversee in-field methane measurements by holding each animal in a portable accumulation chamber (PAC), collecting the gas it emits over the course of one hour, breaking it down by type and analysing it. The project will also examine increasing meat and wool yield with a view to reducing the amount of carbon produced per kilogramme of meat and wool (1.4kg of wool stores 1kg of carbon).
Ross Robertson, head of mixed farming at Agri-EPI Centre said:
“Methane emissions from livestock production are an important contributor to climate change, and farmers are under pressure to act. Innovative farmers like Rob and Jo could provide huge benefits to the UK and international sheep sector, and to the pursuit of sustainable food production.
“Agri-EPI Centre conducts trials with farmers across the UK to test innovations and to learn about their current and anticipated needs. In the case of sheep, valuable rams with high estimated breeding values (EBVs) may still be producing high levels of methane, but if we can breed a demonstrable reduction into the system, the potential for climate change mitigation and for the economic health of the sector is very strong indeed.”
Rob Hodgkins from Kaiapoi Farm, said:
“This project is great because it demonstrates how livestock producers can be part of the solution to produce food sustainably rather than being the problem. It’s not the whole answer, obviously, but if we can cut methane emissions by 15% without reducing productivity and do so relatively quickly and cheaply, it would go some way.
“A few people are looking at methane reduction in cows, but our sheep-breeding project is unique. Because sheep give birth to only one lamb or set of lambs each year, we need to take a relatively long-term view of the project, but I predict that within ten years, domestic and global commercial interest in low-methane livestock will be very high. By doing the work just now, we will be in a strong position to maintain our commercial advantage.
“We are looking for that needle in the haystack: a low-methane, parasite-resistant sheep with a high growth rate and high lambing rates. As technology demonstrators, the more we breed successfully and test, the more we can determine the efficiencies gained by rearing cross-bred animals on a New Zealand system. There are hundreds of thousands of sheep this could be extended to across the UK.
“In a few years sheep producers will be able to look at what we have done, what we have achieved in terms of methane reduction and, as a breed society, individual or collection of farmers consider this as an avenue that they can go down too.”