How can I lower my farm’s methane levels? Focus on feed & breeding

By Tom Gill

World leaders this week have pledged to cut methane emission levels by 30% by 2030 as part of efforts to tackle the climate crisis at the COP26 summit. The US and EU are leading the plan and said rapidly reducing methane emissions is the most effective way to tackle the climate crisis in the short term.

Whilst this is quite a target to reach, and offers challenges to some sectors, there are actions the livestock industry can take to reduce the slightly overwhelming concern this will create at farm level, let alone within the supply chain. By identifying, short, medium and long-term actions, based on measuring emissions on our farms, we can address this issue and act together as an industry to think about the solutions that are out there and how we can begin to lower methane emissions.

Why methane?

No matter how we look at it, reducing our methane emissions will have a significant role to play in making the dairy, beef and livestock sector more environmentally efficient.  

While other sectors mostly emit carbon dioxide, when it comes to UK agriculture carbon dioxide accounts for just 13% of the industry’s total emissions, while more than half (56%) are methane and 31% are nitrous oxide.

Unlike carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, methane is a short-lived (flow gas) greenhouse gas that doesn’t accumulate in the atmosphere, so only about half remains after a decade. However, it does have a higher Global Warming Potential than carbon dioxide — some 27.2 (IPCC ARG WG1 report, 2021) times higher — so if emissions are sustained its potential harm to the climate is much more significant.

Tackling emissions on dairies

Almost 40% of methane is produced as a result of fermentation in the rumen, so the amount of methane produced on a farm is directly related to feed intake and feed quality.

Improving the quality of cattle diets and reducing crude protein to below 18% can reduce emissions and improve efficiencies in converting protein into milk.

Focusing on genetics and breeding lower methane-emitting cows can also have a significant impact on a herd’s environmental sustainability by reducing emissions per kilogram of milk.

Breeding for factors such as better longevity, health and less likelihood of mastitis means lower replacement rates and fewer heifers, which in turn reduces methane emissions.

Meanwhile technology such as genomics can also help identify top-performing animals in a herd, enabling producers to improve overall herd productivity and potentially achieve the same output with fewer animals.

Looking at the beef sector

While the dairy sector might have led the way in genetic improvements in recent years, there is a growing focus in the beef sector on utilising selective breeding to improve productivity and reduce methane emissions.

Estimated Breeding Values offer beef producers information on specific traits they can use as a focus for breeding, such as improved fertility and health.

Meanwhile breeding for better feed efficiency and daily live weight gains can help lower the number of days from birth to slaughter — all of which can have an environmental impact through long-term methane reductions.

Moving forward

Looking ahead, other technologies are emerging as potential tools for helping reduce methane emissions through cattle diets.

Feed additives such as tannins have the potential to reduce fermentation and the release of methane from digestion, while seaweed, algae and other natural additives could also play a role.

Fast-tracking genetic progress through breeding programmes which are based on microbiomes and ruminants’ ability to digest fibre while producing less methane may also soon be an option.

With so many options available when it comes to mitigating methane emissions, knowing where to start might feel overwhelming – especially as a solution for one business might not be right for another.

If you’re not sure which steps to take, get in touch with me, or one of our farm business and sustainability consultants. We’ll work with you to target and reduce methane emissions, and can offer support when it comes to identifying and implementing methane reduction practices.