Breeding cattle and sheep to cut Ireland's carbon footprint   

Breeding cattle and sheep to cut Ireland's carbon footprint   

Work is underway on a revolutionary breeding programme which would dramatically reduce Irish agriculture’s carbon footprint.

The aim of the project is to breed cattle and sheep which produce significantly less methane gases and thus effectively reduce Ireland’s “environmental hoofprint”.

Cattle and sheep produce large amounts of methane, which is a greenhouse gas, explains Donagh Berry, director of the VistaMilk SFI Research Centre and a research officer and statistical geneticist at Teagasc.

As part of their digestive process, he explains, these animals produce methane, which is emitted through their mouths by burping.

Teagasc has carried out a special initiative to quantify the impact of the available technologies which can be used to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.

“One of these technologies which works to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint is the science of breeding,” Mr Berry explains.

“Better breeding methods can contribute to a lowering of the carbon footprint.

“For example, you can breed cattle which live longer and are healthier and more productive. By doing this you can reduce the carbon footprint for every litre of milk and every kilo of beef or lamb produced.

“This is something we have been doing for 20 years with beef and for 10 years with sheep. It’s done through breeding programmes which identify the best male animals, which are then used to breed the females.” However, a second and more focused method is to specifically breed animals which produce less methane per day. To do that you need to be able to identify the good male animals, so it is about data collection,” said Mr Berry.

“However, measuring methane is very expensive.

“There are only two machines in this country which measure methane on grazing animals outdoors. These are owned by VistaMilk SFI Research Centre.

“Teagasc has equipment for measuring the methane output of sheep indoors.

“Meanwhile, our industry partner, the Irish Cattle Breeders Federation has equipment to measure the methane production of beef cattle indoors.” The objective of this data collection, he explained, is to create a ‘breeder’s list’ of bulls and rams which produce the lowest levels of methane.

“Farmers will be able to access that list, when they are purchasing animals.

However, it is likely to be some years before this data can be used to create a breeding programme to cut methane production in male animals such as bulls and rams.

“You can feed animals to reduce methane, but that is a recurring annual cost,” he said, adding that the benefits of breeding for lower methane production accumulate over time and remain in the herd or flock permanently.

Donagh Berry will present his talk, Lowering Ireland’s Environmental Hoofprint at the AgCredible Shed Talk webinar series hosted by Agri Aware and Alltech Ireland on August 11 at 8pm. To register for the Shed Talk series, sign up at

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