Innovation in nutrition, reproduction and genetics, key measures to reduce methane emissions by ruminants

  • Methane emissions by cows and sheep have dropped by 24% in the Basque Country in the last 14 years
  • For more than a decade now, the NEIKER technology centre has been researching how to reduce ruminant-generated pollution

A few weeks ago we found out that New Zealand was considering imposing a tax on its farmers. Its government wants farmers to pay an amount for the methane emissions generated by ruminants such cows and sheep, an initiative that aims to reduce methane gas emissions into the atmosphere. According to the Global Carbon Project, livestock farming is responsible for only 15% of gas emissions.

If the law is approved for the plan under debate drawn up by representatives of the government and the agricultural community, livestock farmers would have to begin to pay for their methane emissions from 2025. This is particularly significant as New Zealand has more ruminants than people. Specifically, it has a population of 5 million inhabitants, compared to 16 million sheep and 10 million cows.

Not wanting to get into debates, with this type of ideas it is important to remember that ruminant farming, in particular extensive methods, provides a number of ‘services’ that make a positive contribution to caring for the environment and maintaining the landscape: preventing fires, maintaining the mountains open, protecting and regenerating the soil, favouring the water cycles and even helping to secure large amounts of carbon in the soil.

Like any other economic activity, it is important that some production systems, in this case the most intensified, evolve toward production methods that are more respectful of the environment. Therefore, it is essential to provide livestock farmers with knowledge, guidance, measures and technology to enable them to make this transition.

In this context, for more than ten years, NEIKER has been studying and working on new measures to reduce methane emissions by ruminants and thus decrease the pollution they cause. To do so, it collaborates with livestock farmers in the Basque Country.

In this respect, among other initiatives, the technology centre has implemented the METALGEN Project alongside the Spanish National Institute for Agricultural Research and Experimentation (INIA), the Polytechnic University of Madrid and the National Confederation for Spanish Friesian Cattle (CONAFE), which has studied the emissions and genetics of 1,500 cows and conducted nutritional tests to evaluate the effect of different nutritional additives on methane emissions.

In this interview with Roberto Ruiz, supervisor of NEIKER’s animal production department, for the magazine Distrito-Euskadi of Radio Euskadi, he states that from 2005 to 2019 the methane emissions of ruminants had dropped by 24% for a variety of reasons. “The sector is evolving, incorporating innovations related to handling, health, nutrition, reproduction and genetics that make production in general more and more efficient”, said Ruiz.

Measuring methane with a portable sensor

The results obtained in the project have shown that the genetic selection of ruminants could reduce methane emissions due to digestion in diary cattle by around 20% in the next ten years.

In addition, food is another very relevant aspect to take into account to reduce the methane expelled by these animals. In this regard, the project has been able to verify that, “diets including flaxseed flour rich in Omega 3 yielded a decrease of more than 20% in digestion-related methane emissions,” specified Ruiz.

Measurements are made with a portable sensor that measures the methane the animals expel. “We installed them in the milking robots on diary farms for several weeks and the probe made it possible to log the belching phenomena and their intensity of all the animals in the herd every time they were milked during this period”, specified the NEIKER researcher. In this regard, the project has identified the cows in the herd that generate the least emissions per litre of milk produced, and that would therefore be the most suitable to be the “mothers” of the next generation.

Oilseeds, an interesting food for ruminants

NEIKER has gained extensive experience working with local raw materials such as oilseeds (oil seed rape, sunflower or flax) and with certain commercial additives, some of which would make it possible to reduce enteric emissions by 30%. It is also working with other raw materials and even food industry by-products (such as coffee grounds or grape stems), to evaluate the extent to which they can help reduce methane emissions.