Dairy farmers could soon be breeding cows for lower methane emissions

New low-cost solution will identify efficient and profitable dairy cows

File photo
File photo
Ciaran Moran

Ciaran Moran

Ground-breaking research is set to give dairy farmers the tools to breed cows with lower methane emission has received significant funding from Science Foundation Ireland.

Teagasc researcher Dr Sinead McParland, has been awarded over €375,000 in a Starting Investigator Research Grant to develop tools to identify the most efficient and profitable cows in the national herd.

Farming accounts for 85pc of methane emissions in Ireland, as ruminant animals emit methane as a bi-product of the fermentation of food. But global demand for dairy products current exceeds supply, putting pressure on dairy herds to produce as much as possible. 

According to Dr McParland efficient cows, which have higher milk solids output per unit input, are required to help meet this 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 efficiecy of cows are very laborious and expensive to operate, so are typically only used in research centres, and the numbers of records we can attain each lactation and the number of individual animals recorded remains small.

"In order to include traits such as efficiency and emissions in our breeding programme, we need lots of unbiased data on as wide a representation of the national herd that is possible," she said.

"We will use information generated as part of routine milk recording to predict intake, efficiency and methane emissions.

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Milk recording, (in Ireland and globally) is operated by taking a small sample of milk (40-50ml) from individual cows during milking 4-12 times across a milking season.

As part of this research, the milk samples are 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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