Sunday, 5 Feb 2023

Plan to breed cows that produce more milk – and burp less methane

Ground-breaking research could give dairy farmers new tools to breed cows that produce more milk, but reduce their methane emissions.

Methane is burped out by cows, and can stay in the atmosphere for 12 years and is a factor in climate change. Farming accounts for 85pc of all methane gas emissions in Ireland.

Teagasc’s Dr Sinead McParland has recently received €375,000 from the Science Foundation Ireland, under their Starting Investigator Research Grant. She will use this funding to try to identify the most efficient and profitable cows in the national herd.

Grass is used to feed most of the dairy herd in Ireland – but cows can’t digest it without the help of microbes in their stomach called methanogens.

Methanogens break down the grass – but also produce methane which is burped out by the animal.

It’s not envisaged Dr McParland’s research will mean the end of belching for Irish cows, but it might lead to a way in which the belching emits lower levels of methane.

Dr McParland’s research will try to identify cows, through their milk, that produce lower levels of methane yet higher levels of milk.

“The most efficient, environmentally sustainable cow produces the greatest volume of milk, from the lowest dietary intake,” she said.

Dr McParland says “efficient” cows are required to help meet the global dairy shortfall, but the amount of research available to date is very limited.

“The research will address the seismic challenge we face to breed more efficient animals (producing more milk from less input) with a lower environmental hoof-print.”

McParland said the current tools which evaluate the efficiency of cows are very laborious and expensive to operate.

This research, she says, will allow a greater amount of information to be collected at farm level which will give a wide representation of the national herd.

As part of this research, milk samples will be analysed by shining a light through the sample at over 1,000 wavelengths which can determine the fat and protein content of the milk as it can also predict the energy intake of cows as well as methane emissions.

“We aim to build on this initial research to build the most accurate equations in order to capture this data from all milk recorded animals and feed this data into the national genetic evaluations.

“Farmers involved in routine milk recording will have this data recorded on their individual animals, enabling them to identify their most efficient, lowest-emitting animals.

“If the project is successful and the traits of efficiency and emissions are included in the breeding goal, all farmers will benefit through a national goal that is genetically selecting for more efficient, environmentally sustainable animals,” she said.

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