The first ever 'Down to Earth' event was hosted in Shropshire earlier this month. The brand new one-day event was aimed at livestock farmers, showcasing practical regenerative farming techniques with the goal of improving productivity, reducing input costs, and protecting the environment.

IfA's Mukhtar Muhammad attended the event. Here he writes about a session from Marko Winters, Head of Animal Genetics at AHDB, asking 'Are genetics key to lowering emissions?'

Genetic solutions in Cattle

There has been positive genetic development in terms of fertility, health and the overall performance of farm animals in recent years. Marko Winters, the Head of Animal Genetics at AHDB discussed what has been done to consolidate the past genetic successes recorded thus far. Marko believes the key to breeding for improved sustainability is to fine tune feed efficiency by embracing new angles. The burning question of 'how can we breed animals that are as productive but with as little feed input as possible' is a strategic guide for the AHDB team. Therefore, to achieve this objective, AHDB are focusing on two target areas: maintenance index and feed advantage.

Maintenance index is looking at breeding cattle that are reduced in size in comparison to current average sized cattle, but which are still as productive. According to Marko there are several advantages for breeding smaller animals. Firstly it cuts down on feed maintenance cost. Estimates show that on average 10 cows within every herd are fed more food than they need because little attention has been paid to feed efficiency. To overcome this challenge, AHDB have recently launched a new index named 'Feed Advantage'. This is an index which helps dairy producers to identify bulls with the greatest tendency to transmit good feed conversion on to their daughters. It is expressed as a Predicted Transmitting Ability (PTA) in kilograms of dry matter intake saved during each lactation.

Taking the future of agriculture and environmental concerns into consideration, AHDB have also recently introduced the EnviroCow index. Incorporating cow lifespan, milk production, fertility and the new Feed Advantage index, EnviroCow is one of the first genetic indexes in the world to focus solely on breeding cows for their environmental credentials. By selecting cows which produce a lot of milk across a long lifespan, there is a reduced need for replacements which reduces the level of emissions on that individual farm. AHDB hope that this index could lead to a 20% reduction in Carbon Emissions from UK dairy herds over the next 20 years.  

Reducing methane emissions in sheep

There are two primary methods for reducing methane emissions through sheep breeding. One method of reducing methane emissions is to improve production efficiency, while another is to reduce methane emissions directly.

1. Improving production efficiency:

Producers and farmers should focus on measurable traits to improve production efficiency and reduce costs. These observable characteristics should guide breeding and purchasing decisions. As a result, recording can be an important tool for gathering objective information during breeding or purchasing breeding sheep. When it comes to increasing production efficiency, there are three main measurable traits to look for.

Lamb survivability: When minimising methane emissions through improved production efficiency, the number of lambs raised per ewe is a crucial attribute to take into account. The more lambs raised per individual ewe, of course leads to a more efficient system.  

Ewe longevity: Ewe longevity is another important factor. Keeping ewes in the flock that are productive for a very long time is important. The goal is to harvest as many crops as possible during those years. 

Number of days for lambs on farms: The amount of time it takes to finish lambs can impact the farm emission level. The longer than animals is alive, the more methane it will emit. 

2. Directly reducing methane emissions from the farm:

About 70% of the methane emissions in most sheep farms can be attributed to the ewe and her maintenance requirements through the year. So, in terms of breeding, it's measuring traits in maternal genetics. Methane emissions from different sheep breeds vary. Therefore, it is possible to breed sheep that emit less methane if we consider the genetic variants that account for the 20 to 25 percent variation in methane production between individual sheep. New Zealand is a good example; they've been doing this and are selecting sheep as a kind of proof-of-concept. According to reported data, breed differences produced an 11 percent reduction in methane reduction over the course of around 10 years.

Understanding how this variance in methane emissions relates to production is equally important. The news on that, though, has been favourable thus far, according to Genus ABS’s representative. It appears to be closely tied to the sheep's productivity and positively correlated with many other features desired in sheep. 

It is early days still when considering the role of genetics in our journey to Net Zero, but the general theme emerging from Down to Earth was certainly a positive one. For more information on this topic click here