Last updated September 3, 2019 at 12:04 pm
The climate impact of cow farts and burps could be reduced, as an international team show that it is possible to breed cows that produce less methane.
An international team of researchers have looked at the genetic makeup of cows in order to reduce the amount of methane they emit.
Published in the journal Science Advances, the researchers showed that the genetics of an individual cow strongly influenced the make-up of the microorganisms in its rumen (the first stomach in the digestive system of ruminant animals which include cattle and sheep).
Genetic makeup controls methane-producing microbes
“What we showed is that the level and type of methane-producing microbes in the cow is to a large extent controlled by the cow’s genetic makeup. That means we could select for cattle which are less likely to have high levels of methane-producing bacteria in their rumen.”
Cattle and other ruminants are significant producers of the greenhouse gas methane – contributing 37 per cent of the methane emissions resulting from human activity. A single cow on average produces between 70 and 120 kg of methane per year. Worldwide, there are about 1.5 billion cattle.
Breeding low-methane cows will still depend on other desired characteristics
The researchers analysed the microbiomes from ruminal fluid samples of 1000 cows, along with measuring the cows’ feed intake, milk production, methane production and other biochemical characteristics. Although this study was carried out on dairy cows, the heritability of the types of microbes in the rumen should also apply to beef cattle.
“Previously we knew it was possible to reduce methane emissions by changing the diet,” says Williams. “But changing the genetics is much more significant – in this way we can select for cows that permanently produce less methane.”
Williams says breeding for low-methane cattle will, however, depends on selection priorities and how much it compromises selection for other desired characteristics such as meat quality, milk production or disease resistance.
“We now know it’s possible to select for low methane production,” he says.
“But it depends on what else we are selecting for, and the weighting that is placed on methane – that’s something that will be determined by industry or society pressures.”
The researchers also found a correlation, although not as high, between the cows’ microbiomes and the efficiency of milk production.
“We don’t yet know, but if it turned out that low-methane production equated to greater efficiencies of production – which could turn out to be true given that energy is required to produce the methane – then that would be a win, win situation,” Williams says.