Scientists work on methane solution

New Zealand scientists hope to have technologies that can be implemented on farm to help reduce methane gas emissions from farm animals such as cows, cattle, sheep and deer within about five years.

That's the view of Mark Aspin, manager of the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium (PGgRc) which along with the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre is working to find a solution to the problem.

Much of the science work the two organisations do is based at Palmerston North and the pair are working on a joint science programme to contribute to the achievement of two government targets is respect of greenhouse gas emissions - lowering our emissions by five percent below the 1990 levels by 2020 and cutting them by 50 percent by 2050. Aspin says the agricultural industry accounts for 46% of New Zealand's total emissions and with our large ruminant population this is a serious challenge. He says farmers have been doing their bit to reduce methane emissions by becoming more productive, but he says the increase in livestock numbers - especially cow numbers - the efficiency gains are not keeping pace with the quantum increase product output.

"Efficiency gains made by farmers have decreased greenhouse gas intensity by one percent annually. This is through a combination of better genetics and feed but given that livestock production is increasing by two percent annually, this is not enough. So with the financial support of government and the farming industry through the likes of DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb we are looking to find some technologies that can give us an extra one-and-ahalf percent increase in intensity efficiency," he says.

The funding for the science comes from two sources - MPI funds the work the work being done by the Greenhouse Gas Research Centre and this involves most of CRI's plus Massey University and DairyNZ. The (PGgRc) gets 50% money from MBIE and the other 50% comes from industry organisations including again DairyNZ, Fonterra, Landcorp and Beef+ Lamb.

Some of the research efforts are directed at finding ways to inhibit a tiny microbes using vaccines and chemical inhibitors found in the rumen of cattle, sheep and deer known as methanogens which produce methane in the gut of the animal and which is then expelled into the atmosphere when the animals belch. The solutions being investigated include finding genetic traits in animals that produce less methane and seeing if different types of forages can also make a difference.

"Firstly we are reliant on the scientists to understand the systems and where methane comes from and what drives it. Also whether there are specific forages that may end up using less methane than ryegrass and while clover which is the mainstay of our pasture. We have found that brassica crops do give us some benefit in that respect, but that is just for very limited time of the year. But with this and our genetic programme we know the gains will be small and therefore will have to look at some of the more scientifically challenging and higher impact options such as a methane vaccine and methane inhibitors," he says.

Aspin says even when a solution is found in the case of the methane vaccine and/or inhibitors, it will take time for clinical trials to be conducted and the product to be fully commercialised. He says while excellent progresses is being made by the science teams a solution for farmers could still be five years away.

He says right now there is not a lot more that farmers can do but to keep driving on farm efficiency and to continue to support their respective industry good organisations funding of the science programmes.

Peter Burke
Dairy News
12 August 2014

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