By Karen Wright
A green future, incentivized by Government, is being mapped out in Norway with electric vehicles now accounting for 60% of new car sales, leaving fossil-fuel vehicles lagging.
Monitoring methane emission from young bulls
And the dairy industry isn't being left out. The Norwegian Government has put 15 million NOK (£1.275 million) – an amount matched by the country's Norwegian Red cattle breeding company Geno – into a cattle breeding project, which is monitoring methane emissions not only on dairy units but also in its Norwegian Red young bull testing station.
This is the first project of its kind to monitor methane emissions from young bulls; a move that the company anticipates will generate data that can be used to develop a methane breeding index and bring both environmental and economic gains to the sector.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through breeding
The organization has a breeding program for the development of the Norwegian Red breed with genetics used in the domestic dairy herd and extensively in crossbreeding programmes around the world.
"Geno has invested in research aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions through breeding," says Geno researcher Karoline Bakke Wethal.
"It supports the climate agreement signed specifically by our farmers and the Government here in Norway, which looks for a commitment from all producers. As part of this effort, Geno's methane monitoring project is one of the measures that will hopefully help the producer by providing a breeding value for methane emissions in a few years."
This ground-breaking breeding work is supported by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and international universities in other countries.
"So far, seven Green Feed units have been installed on dairy units, which measure methane emissions as cows eat. Each animal is identified by its electronic ear tag and the daily enteric methane, and CO2 production is recorded. "The methane gas comes naturally from the animal's digestive system. Cattle continuously 'burb' so the emissions during feeding are a good representation of total emissions and provide good comparative data," adds Dr Wethal.
The plan is to increase to 15 Green Feed machines on a mix of university and commercial farms and collect individual methane data from nearly 1,000 Norwegian Red dairy cows. "We have also placed a Green Feed unit in our Norwegian Red young bull testing station; we believe we are the first company in the world where future elite sires in a breeding programme are being tested directly for methane emissions."
Data from the Green Feeders is processed by Geno and will be used in a research project in collaboration with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).
Primarily, the information will be used to develop a methane breeding index. "We anticipate that we may have this by 2023, but that is difficult to estimate at this stage," adds Dr. Wethal.
Methane is energy-rich
The association between feed utilization and methane production means that there's a direct gain for the producer through improved feed efficiency. Research has shown that there is a significant variation in a cow's feed efficiency, and part of this is genetic.
"We know that methane emissions vary between individual cows, and it may be linked to feed efficiency, but we need the data before we can make our conclusions," says Dr. Wethal.
Research project manager Professor Bjørg Heringstad, from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, anticipates that the environmental goals will have other positive effects beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"The indirect economic benefits of reduced methane via feed efficiency remains to be explored, but it may have a huge economic impact on milk production," says Professor Heringstad. "Methane is an energy-rich gas, and emissions are actually energy loss that can constitute as much as 8% of the gross energy in the feed," she says.
The genetic improvement that can be made in reducing methane emissions – and hopefully improving feed efficiency – through breeding will be more efficient than improvements generated through diet in the long term. Professor Heringstad points out that genetic improvement is a permanent and cumulative effect, and reducing methane emissions – and improving feed efficiency – through breeding will be efficient in the long term.
"We will work with both strategies in this project in order to select an even more environmentally friendly, healthy, and productive dairy cow."
Agriculture accounts for about 8% of Norway's total greenhouse gas emissions. About half of this is methane emissions from ruminants.
The Norwegian Red breeding program has supported a more environmentally friendly cow for the past four decades by strengthening traits like health and fertility alongside production. The goal is to continue breeding for these key parameters, as well as low methane production and improved feed efficiency.
"Selecting a cow with a positive breeding index for methane will help to reduce greenhouse gas production from the dairy sector," adds Dr. Wethal. "But there is a significant advantage in feed efficiency for the producer. A low methane-emitting cow will make better use of her feed for milk production. This improved feed efficiency has an impact on the bottom line of the business."
Measuring methane emissions for individual cows under Norwegian conditions and then estimating genetic parameters for the trait for the breed will provide the knowledge needed to quantify the potential for reduced methane emissions by breeding. "This will enable us to calculate the breeding values that will lead to the next generation of cows here in Norway and in our crossbreeding programs used around the world that will be better resource utilisers and energy-efficient.
"And knowledge of genetic associations between methane emission and other important traits will also be crucial for calculating possible economic benefits or costs," says Dr. Wethal.