Specifically designed animal breeding strategies will be able to identify cattle and sheep that inherently produce less methane than others. That’s according to Dr. Steven Morrison, programme leader on sustainable livestock production at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI).

But can this trait can be implemented in future cattle and sheep breeding strategies without forgoing improvements in their production-related abilities?

Morrison has said that these objectives can be achieved – but not without the required data.

Speaking at the 2022 AFBI science outlook conference, Morrison confirmed that the adoption of new and nearly new technologies can bring about a 23% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) production levels.

But this figure assumes a very high level of uptake for these advancements at farm level.

Animal breeding strategies

Morrison pointed out that the further attainment of significant net reductions in GHG emissions will require two key drivers: The development of new science and the development of much-improved knowledge-exchange systems within the farming industry.

Where animal breeding is concerned, the AFBI representative confirmed the role of genomics and fast-evolving genetic technologies.

He said: “The goal of genetic improvement is to breed better animals for particular traits or economically derived indices.

“This will not be a quick fix; it won’t happen overnight. But it is an issue that we definitely have to address.”

Research has confirmed that genetic improvement within animal populations is both permanent and cumulative. But it’s all about taking a longer-term approach.

“The genetic variation within animal populations does exist to allow the identification of those deliver specific production-related benefits,” he continued.

“Heritability is also important. In other words, can a specific trait be passed from one generation to the next?

“Where methane emissions are concerned, we are seeing heritability ranging from 15-30%. So, this is something that we can aim for.”

So much for the theory, the key challenge, according to Morrison, is the identification of the animals that can deliver these benefits.

“To make this happen, we need data,” he stressed.

“And genomic information will be critically important in this context.”

The latest research has indicated that by breeding for methane reduction, it should be possible to reduce GHG emissions by 24% up to 2050. This figure could be even greater, assuming the continuing advancement in scientific research.

“Genomics is the science of the here and now,” said Morrison.

“But the future will be determined by the science of multiomics. This will allow us to precisely identify what factors switch a specific gene on and off.

“This is new science that will bring us well beyond methane. It has the potential to open doors where issues such as disease susceptibility and resilience are concerned.”