New Zealand scientists are breeding farm animals that burp less as a means to cut emissions contributing to climate change.

With methane being the largest single contributor to greenhouse gases produced in New Zealand, and a gas that is a significant contributor internationally to global warming, state-owned New Zealand research institute AgResearch is working on innovative ways to reduce emissions of it.

Among AgResearch’s work to reduce methane emissions from agriculture – methane being the gas released in the burps of ruminant livestock such as sheep and cattle – is the breeding of sheep that naturally produce less methane.

Scientists at AgResearch have used genetics to breed sheep that produce less methane from their grass diets. To confirm their progress, the animals are placed in specialised chambers for short periods to measure the gases they produce.

“Our results to date show we can breed the animals safely for lower methane emissions,” says AgResearch senior scientist Dr Suzanne Rowe.

“We have shown, using sheep bred for high and low methane over two generations, that the amount of methane a sheep produces during digestion is partly controlled by genetics. We have demonstrated a 10 per cent difference in methane produced between the average sheep in both the high and low methane breeding lines.”

“A five-year programme - with funding from New Zealand farmers through the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, and from Government through the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre - has been dedicated to measuring whether breeding for low methane is likely to affect reproduction, productivity and health. Other positives are that the lower methane emitting animals also appear to have leaner meat and grow more wool. We’re now into the final year of the programme and it has been very successful, and we are moving into a new phase of rolling it out onto farms.”

New Zealand researchers also exploring other methods to reduce methane production from livestock, including the development of inhibitors and a vaccine that could be administered to the animals to reduce methane emissions.”

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