In a world-first scientific breakthrough, the Irish cattle herd may soon see a reduction in methane emissions through animal genetics. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, and the Minister of State with special responsibility for research and innovation, Martin Heydon, announced the groundbreaking discovery on Thursday, May 4th. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) confirmed that the publication of methane evaluations will enable breeding programmes to reduce daily methane emissions in beef cattle.
The €3 million project, called GREENBREED, funded by the DAFM, has led to the publication of the world’s first national genomic evaluations for methane emissions in Irish beef cattle. The research collaboration involved Teagasc, South East Technological University (SETU), Munster Technological University (MTU), and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF). The project found that there were large differences in daily methane emissions between animals fed the same diet, with 11% of these differences being traced to genetic differences. The 20% highest emitting animals genetically are expected to emit 30% more methane per day compared to the 20% lowest emitting animals. The research indicates that breeding programmes to reduce methane emissions will be effective for selecting low-emitting livestock, especially when undertaken in tandem with the national genomic evaluations, such as the age at slaughter evaluations released in 2022.
Minister McConalogue believes that this scientific breakthrough will be a game-changer in reducing agricultural emissions and that science is the “ace up our sleeve” in reaching climate targets. The implementation of a low methane-emitting breeding programme has significant potential to harness the genetic variation for methane emissions that exists within the national herd. This, in turn, will bring about permanent and cumulative reductions in the methane output of future generations of livestock. The results of the research also highlight the potential to breed more environmentally sustainable animals without negatively impacting animal performance and profitability.
Minister Heydon added that the extensive, ground-breaking research conducted as part of the department-funded GREENBREED project represents a global-first for the Irish beef sector. It will help reduce methane emissions from beef cattle in a way that is both economically and environmentally sustainable. The coordinator of the GREENBREED project, Professor Donagh Berry, said that breeding strategies have already proven to deliver advantages. The benefits will accumulate over time, delivering permanent changes to the entire national herd without additional costs to producers.
The GREENBREED project is investigating ‘Sustainable ruminant breeding programmes for low environmental footprint’ and was awarded funding of €3 million through the DAFM 2017 competitive national research call. The project is led by Professor Donagh Berry of Teagasc, which is the lead institution, and the collaborating institutions are SETU, MTU, and ICBF. The objective of GREENBREED is to develop, validate, and deploy necessary tools and optimal strategies to achieve sustainable and quantifiable genetic gain in environmental and economic efficiency in dairy, beef, and sheep. The environmental traits considered are methane, ammonia, nitrous oxide, and nitrates. It aims for direct and indirect selection for environmental efficiency without compromising economic efficiency or societal concerns of genetically elite animals.
This new breeding tool provides an estimate of the expected methane emitted for individual animals, thus providing a mechanism to disregard high-emitting animals as parents of the next generation. This ‘global-first’ genomic evaluation for individual animal methane emissions in a multi-breed population of growing animals complements other breeding strategies developed, such as the carbon sub-index launched last November.