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Dairy farmers could soon be breeding cows for lower methane emissions

Ground-breaking research is set to give dairy farmers the tools to breed cows with lower methane emission has received significant funding from Science Foundation Ireland.

Teagasc researcher Dr Sinead McParland, was awarded over €375,000 in a Starting Investigator Research Grant to develop tools to identify the most efficient and profitable cows in the national herd.

According to Dr McParland, global growth in demand for dairy products currently exceeds supply and this is anticipated to continue.

Efficient cows, which have higher milk solids output per unit input, are required to help meet this shortfall.

However, she says it is not possible to identify the most efficient cows using currently available tools.

“The research will address the seismic challenge we face to breed more efficient animals (producing more milk from less input) with a lower environmental hoof-print.”

McParland said the current tools which evaluate the efficiecy of cows are very laborious and expensive to operate.

Therefore, to-date, she says they are typically only used in research centres, and the numbers of records we can attain each lactation and the number of individual animals recorded remains small.

“In order to include traits such as efficiency and emissions in our breeding programme, we need lots of unbiased data on as wide a representation of the national herd that is possible,” she said.

“We will use information generated as part of routine milk recording to predict intake, efficiency and methane emissions.

Milk recording, (in Ireland and globally) is operated by taking a small sample of milk (40-50ml) from individual cows during milking 4-12 times across the lactation.

The samples are sent to a laboratory where they are processed by a fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy machine.

The machine shines light through the sample at over 1,000 wavelengths, and the absorption of light through the milk at particular wavelengths is used to determine the fat and protein content of the milk.

The same process is applied to all bulk tank samples analysed for milk composition.

According to Dr McParland recent research (by Teagasc and collaborators) has shown that the spectrum generated to predict the macro fat and protein composition can be used to predict the energy intake of cows as well as methane emissions.

“We aim to build on this initial research to build the most accurate equations in order to capture this data from all milk recorded animals and feed this data into the national genetic evaluations.

“Farmers involved in routine milk recording will have these data recorded on their individual animals enabling them to identify their most efficient, lowest emitting animals.

“If the project is successful and the traits of efficiency and emissions are included in the breeding goal, all farmers will benefit through a national goal that is genetically selecting for more efficient, environmentally sustainable animals,” she said.


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