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20% Methane Reduction

New genetic breakthrough allows selection for methane reduction

Genetics has always been at the forefront of the sustainability agenda, being one of the main ways to deliver the “more output for less input” outcome that is required to feed the world using fewer resources, while journeying to the Net Zero destination.

But now a new development is set to take that to a whole new level, with the introduction of a genetic solution to one of the world's largest environmental problems – methane production. From April 2023 every dairy producer in the world will have the chance to assess, monitor and ultimately reduce cow methane emissions via an exclusive genomic test brought to market by Semex.

Selection for methane could result in a 20-30% reduction in the gas by 2050 depending on the selection intensity, with no negative effect on other cow traits. Selection at a very high intensity would result in a 30% drop, while selecting at a more realistic and modest level would reduce it to a more achievable and realistic 20%, it says. The trait is 23% heritable, which is comparable to production and immune response, and has a 70% reliability.

The measurement and expression of the trait has been corrected to have a zero correlation with Milk Fat and Protein production, on the grounds that there is no point in reducing individual cow methane production if we then needed more cows to produce the same amount of food as before. There would be no climate change or consumer benefit if the cow population increased.

“This development is really significant,” says Dr Michael Lohuis, Semex Vice President Research and Innovation. “We know that genetics has a major role to play in reducing emissions because it is the main way dairy farmers can produce ‘more outputs from fewer inputs with less emissions. But this new technology takes the contribution from genetics to the next level.”

Drew Sloan, Vice President for Corporate Development, added that methane is the global enemy, and with many countries pointing the finger at agriculture, and specifically cattle as the main culprit of excess emissions, it was important every company and every farmer did what they could to mitigate emissions. “This is another tool in the toolbox to bring down emission on farm, which will contribute to reaching that goal.” The innovation has already got the seal of approval from Dr Frank Mitloehner, Professor and air quality specialist at the CLEAR Centre at UC Davis in California [@GHGguru on social media], who agreed that it would be another useful contributor to reducing cattle’s methane emissions, along with boluses, vaccines and feed additives.

The breakthrough…

The genetic breakthrough on methane selection came as a result of a collaboration of scientists at Semex and Lactanet - Canada’s milk recording and genetic evaluation company. Both wanted to try and find out whether genetics could also help provide a solution to methane emissions.

The key was the data on cattle genetics that Lactanet have been collecting for the last five years. It now holds over 13 million milk mid-infrared (MIR) spectroscopy records from 1.6 million cows, in fact. Of those over 700,000 first lactation records were drawn down and analysed.

This was because they were the records from the cows best aligned to a physical trial of 500 first lactation cows, whose methane emissions were accurately measured via The Greenfield system. This is effectively a sophisticated cow feeder, which measures the methane being emitted from individual cows as they feed. Semex research partners at the University of Guelph then analysed and cross referred the infrared data and an 85% correlation between collected methane and predicted methane was duly determined. The conclusion was that there is a genetic way to lower methane, because the genetics of the cow has an impact on the type of microbes in the gut. And they, in turn, have an impact on the amount of methane produced. Semex scientists found this rather somewhat surprising as the initial assumptions were that

the diet would determine which bugs were most prevalent in the cows’ stomach, and that each cow would effectively have similar methane emissions. But not so.

The implementation…

Semex and Lactanet are now bringing the technology to market, and from April a methane index on all tested females will be available exclusively via Semex’ genomic test Elevate. This allows dairy farmers to select for methane reduction in their breeding policy, in the same way that they will do for milk production, or butterfat, or health traits.

Farmers who have already genomically tested their cows with Elevate will automatically get the index, as well as those doing their herd for the first time. There is no need for herds to redo their Elevate test regime. Semex’s bull proofs will also contain the index.

“We can see a clear path of what farmers will need to do to reduce methane emissions via genetics by 2050,” says Drew Sloan. “It is a major breakthrough in our climate mitigation, and we are delighted to be bringing this to market.”

Semex now needs to communicate the science behind the development with the carbon audit and trading certification bodies and their customers, such as milk processors, so they understand it, and trust it. Then they may well reward farmers for their investment in methane selection in the future.

“That is the next stage of this exciting journey to Net Zero,” concludes Drew

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