AgResearch sheep-breeding team among 2023 Research Honours Aotearoa winners 

The Pickering Medal has been awarded to a team from AgResearch for breeding sheep which emit less methane, and for determining the potential reduction of methane emissions if these sheep can be farmed throughout New Zealand.

The medal recognises excellence and innovation in the practical applications of technology.

It was one of four presented in Christchurch by the Royal Society Te Apārangi to recognise researchers who have achieved excellence in scholarship, innovation or who have made a significant contribution to the country through their research and careers.

This was the second of three 2023 Research Honours Aotearoa events to be held around the country.

The Citation says:

To AgResearch Low Methane Sheep Breeding Team for breeding low methane-emitting sheep, determining its biological basis, quantifying its impact on New Zealand’s methane emissions, and embedding this breeding solution in the national flock.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi  website says the AgResearch team’s breakthrough has provided sheep farmers with a practical tool to help them lower emissions from their flocks and offers the world a scientific solution to reducing agricultural contributions to global greenhouse gases.

The ‘Low Methane Sheep Breeding Team’ first developed technology and scientific protocols to effectively measure the gas output of individual animals, then identified genetic and microbiological markers of low methane production.  Over more than a decade, they have used this information to select healthy sheep which not only emit less methane, but also produce high-quality meat and wool. They’ve worked closely with the sheep-farming industry to implement the breeding approach more widely.

This has been a global first for any species, with the opportunity to reproduce the success of the programme for other livestock and accelerate global efforts to mitigate anthropogenic climate change.

Multiple mitigation strategies in livestock are currently being explored to meet New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions target of 24-47% less methane, below 2017 levels, by 2050.

Of the various approaches, breeding of lower methane-emitting ruminants has the advantage of being permanent and cumulative.

The team has demonstrated that after only three generations of breeding, the sheep bred to emit the least methane produce close to 13% less methane than the highest emitters per kilogram of feed eaten.

AgResearch’s elite “research flock 2638” has been strategically developed over three decades from sheep representative of New Zealand’s national flock to cumulatively enhance specific traits.

In 2021, the research team recorded a drop of over 2% in methane emissions from flock 2638, while continuing to improve performance in other traits that are relevant to industry, such as the quality of meat and wool.

The researchers estimate that incorporation of this low-methane breeding trait into New Zealand’s entire sheep flock would reduce methane by 0.5 to 1% annually, with ongoing reductions from further breeding.

Key contributors to the research are Dr Suzanne Rowe, Dr John McEwan, Dr Petrus (Peter) Janssen, and Dr Graeme Atwood.

Suzanne leads the programme, with key expertise from John on animal genetics and genomics, and Peter and Graeme on the rumen microbiome and methane production.

These four individuals have been supported by a diverse group of scientists and engineers at AgResearch, including: Arjan Jonker, Sharon Hickey, Timothy Bilton, Patricia Johnson, Hannah Henry, Brooke Bryson and Steve Gebbie.

They have worked in the field, in the workshop, and in the laboratory.

Together, they have written more than 50 peer reviewed papers on low-methane sheep.

A nomination supporter says the team’s dedication and commitment to achieving a practical, usable outcome, and the thoroughness of the research undertaken and their widespread engagement with scientists and farmers domestically and internationally, are examples of the qualities needed of a research team to achieve a successful outcome.

“They developed this technology using a comprehensive and systematic scientific approach. In the longer term, with adoption by the sheep sector, this mitigation will contribute to achieving the agriculture sector’s emission targets.”

The low-methane breeding research was made possible with funding from farmers through the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, and from the government via the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre. AgResearch has also worked closely with Beef + Lamb New Zealand on engagement with farmers and plans to scale-up this technology.

Source:  Royal Society Te Apārangi 


Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog