Cattle bred to produce less methane

Genetic makeup of an individual cow significantly controls the level and type of methane-producing microbes in its rumen


By Margaret Evans, The Western Producer (Canada)

August 8, 2019


Cattle and other ruminants are known as significant producers of the greenhouse gas methane.


According to Agriculture Canada, a lactating dairy cow produces about 400 grams of methane each day. In one year, that adds up to the equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions from a mid-sized car driven 20,000 kilometres.


Given there are about 1.5 billion cattle worldwide, their methane production is considerable and adds to concern about greenhouse gases. It is a problem, despite recent findings that methane doesn’t persist in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide.


Scientists at the University of Adelaide in Australia, in collaboration with universities in Europe, Israel and the United States, have conducted research that has shown it is possible to breed cattle to reduce their methane emissions. The genetic makeup of an individual cow significantly controls the level and type of methane-producing microbes in its rumen.


“Ruminants are unable to digest the plant material in their diets directly but the organisms in the rumen break down the plants into simpler molecules that the animals can digest. Reducing the number of organisms would reduce the efficiency of the fermentation process,” said professor John Williams, director of the Davies Research Centre at the University of Adelaide’s School of Animal and Veterinary Science.


“The fermentation produces hydrogen that the organisms use in creating methane. Therefore, it is controlling the community of organisms that is important. This is where the genetics comes in as the genetics of the animal seems to have an effect on the core communities with some animals favouring communities that produce lower amounts of methane.”


Williams said that the research project was developed in response to a call for proposals from the European Union. It allowed them to bring together an international team from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, Parco Tecnologico Padano, Italy, and the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.


The study focused on dairy cattle and specifically Holstein and Scandinavian Red cattle. The findings were confirmed in both breeds and across the different locations where diets varied slightly. While they did not include beef breeds, the consensus was that the core rumen microbiota would be under the same genetic influence inherent in beef cattle.


Other studies have shown a correlation between very early life experiences...