An international team of scientists has shown it is possible to breed cattle to reduce their methane emissions.
Published in the journal Science Advances, the researchers found that the genetics of an individual cow strongly influenced the make-up of the microorganisms in its rumen.
One of the project’s leaders and co-author Professor John Williams, from the University of Adelaide’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, said the research showed the level and type of methane-producing microbes in the cow is to a large extent controlled by the cow’s genetic make-up.
‘‘That means we could select for cattle which are less likely to have high levels of methane-producing bacteria in their rumen,’’ Prof Williams said.
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 120kg of methane per year and, worldwide, there are about 1.5 billion cattle.
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 researchers believe the research can also apply to beef cattle.
‘‘Previously we knew it was possible to reduce methane emissions by changing the diet,’’ Prof Williams said.
‘‘But changing the genetics is much more significant in this way we can select for cows that permanently produce less methane.’’
However, breeding for low-methane cattle will depend 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,’’ Prof Williams said.
‘‘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,’’ Prof Williams said.