The work of AgResearch scientists to successfully breed low methane emitting sheep, as a tool to combat climate change, has been recognised with the Supreme Award at this year’s Science New Zealand Awards.

With the support of the industry through the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGgRc) and the government via the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC), the AgResearch scientists spent over a decade working on the science and were able to identify genetic differences which influence how much methane an individual sheep produces.

By breeding for this low methane genetic trait, the scientists have been able to demonstrate that after three generations the lowest emitting sheep produce close to 13 per cent less methane than the highest emitters, per kilogram of feed eaten. While the actual methane reduction at the farm scale will be less when sheep are also being bred for other desirable genetic traits, it is still expected to be significant. The lower emitting sheep have been found to be otherwise healthy and productive where it comes to their meat and wool.

The winning AgResearch team.

AgResearch senior scientist Suzanne Rowe says this knowledge is being shared with the sheep industry in New Zealand, with researchers globally and is also assisting research into breeding lower methane emitting cattle.

“Research like this is critical for the agriculture sector, which produces almost half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions and needs practical tools to help achieve a reduction target of 24-47 per cent less methane by 2050,” Dr Rowe says. Methane is a relatively short-lived but potent greenhouse gas.

Judges in this year’s Science New Zealand Awards, which include entries from New Zealand’s seven crown research institutes and Callaghan Innovation, referenced the major significance of AgResearch’s work within New Zealand and the “tangible contribution to the global issue of our time”.  

The world-first AgResearch achievement also featured engineering innovation in the form of specially designed portable accumulation chambers that can be taken on to farms to measure the methane emissions of individual sheep.  

Dr Rowe says it is humbling to have the work of her and her colleagues recognised.

“It has taken well over a decade to reach this point and it has been a long journey by a dedicated team of scientists. We have worked side by side with sheep breeders and farmers to achieve a practical outcome that can be applied on farms. It is a fantastic feeling to know that we have achieved something that will make a difference for the livestock industry, for New Zealand, and the world when it comes to climate change. This is why we do our science – to make a real difference.”

“We’ve been fortunate in this programme to have great support from our funders in PGgRc and NZAGRC, and to be able to work closely with the sheep industry through Beef+Lamb Genetics to share these gains with sheep breeders and farmers. We think that when this low methane breeding trait is incorporated into New Zealand’s entire sheep flock, the methane reduction could be in the area of 0.5 to 1 per cent annually, which will be significant as it accumulates over time.”

PGgRc general manager Mark Aspin welcomed the recognition of “an immense amount of mahi and dedication” since 2007 by the AgResearch team led by John McEwan and Suzanne Rowe.

"The livestock industry relies heavily on genetic improvement to remain competitive and the challenge of lowering methane is no different. The results of this research will matter for our farmers,” Mr Aspin says.

 “This trail-blazing research has provided sheep farmers with the opportunity to lower methane in a permanent and cumulative manner, underpinning and complementing other strategies for greenhouse gas reduction. It has opened up the opportunity for all New Zealand livestock industries to follow suit and this is now gaining momentum as the focus shifts to extending the genetic selection across the national sheep flock and to cattle and deer.”

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