Low methane sheep genetics research: your questions answered

// Breeding and Genetics

We know there has been a lot of interest from farmers in B+LNZ’s low methane sheep genetics research and naturally some questions. With the research on the agenda as a remit at B+LNZ’s upcoming Annual Meeting, we want to provide farmers with more information on the project.

image of sheep infront of cloudy mountains genetics pic only

Why is Beef + Lamb New Zealand investing in the research?

B+LNZ’s role is to provide a diverse range of farmers with tools to help address issues. A number of farmers have told us that finding solutions to ruminant methane emissions is important to them.

We recognise that some farmers may not want to use low methane sheep, and that is absolutely ok, our job is to make a range of tools available and farmers can choose which ones they want to use. 

It is likely that in the future farmers will need to be able to demonstrate how they are managing their emissions. Currently, using low methane sheep is one of the few tools available to extensive farmers.

New Zealand’s red meat and wool exporters are telling us that greenhouse gas (GHG) production from farms is increasingly part of discussions with customers in their global markets.  While there is a question mark around whether it will be possible to get a premium, being able to demonstrate progress is likely going to be important. 

How is B+LNZ conducting research into low methane sheep genetics?

B+LNZ’S Cool Sheep programme, funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and supported by AgResearch, is a world-first project that aims to give every sheep farmer in New Zealand the opportunity to use genetic selection to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for our national flock

It is accelerating the identification of low methane rams in the breeding sector to increase the supply of these rams to lower sheep methane in the national flock.

Other countries (like the US, Ireland and the UK) are now starting to invest heavily in similar genetic research, building off ours. 

What interest has there been in the Cool Sheep programme?

It is really pleasing to see the level of interest from breeders and there are lots of sheep out there now with a methane breeding value.

Despite participation in this programme being voluntary, more than 20,000 rams have already been tested and farmers have expressed interest in testing a further 5,600 rams in the 2024 year.

We are over-subscribed with farmers who want to use the portable accumulation chambers (PACs) to measure the methane emissions from their animals.

Is there a risk that other desirable traits could be compromised in the pursuit of low methane sheep genetics?

AgResearch and B+LNZ have been assessing these animals for a long time. 

We know that low methane sheep are leaner and have a slightly different fatty acid profile in their milk and fat. They have less carcase fat and an improved dressing out per cent. High methane sheep have slightly higher body condition scores. 

Low methane sheep have larger feed intakes than high methane animals, despite high methane animals having larger rumens than either the low methane flock or control animals. Low methane sheep do not have smaller rumens than usual.

Sheep bred for low methane emissions as part of selection lines are also proving to perform economically better than sheep bred for high methane emissions. When using the NZMW index, the low selection line is around $12 more profitable than the high selection line, excluding any value on the actual methane.

The Cool Sheep programme’s environmental selection index will allow farmers to select for low methane producing sheep as part of a balanced breeding programme with other important production traits. 

Farmers should be cautious about only selecting for low methane. Beef + Lamb New Zealand Genetics and most geneticists do not recommend that. 

Guidance for how to include methane in a selection criteria has been developed by B+LNZ and is available from B+LNZ Genetics while the Environmental Index is being finalised.

The ‘low methane’ trait will not be included in the NZ Maternal Worth Index (NZMW) in the foreseeable future and the index is not affected by low methane sheep. 

Who is paying for the research?

This project is largely funded by MPI and brings significant co-benefits for our wider genetics programme – in particular, it will set up a system that can deal with hard-to-measure traits like meat quality and immunity more effectively. All new money for this work is funded by MPI (53 percent), while B+LNZ (27 percent) and farmers involved contribute (20 percent) respectively through staff time and activities on-farm.

How does this research relate to a potential price on emissions? 

B+LNZ’s position is that there should be no price on agricultural emissions. We believe that if we are making progress in reducing our emissions, then there is no need for a price. In our view, using this technology is one way to avoid this.