Climate-smart cattle breeding

Reducing the CO2 footprint of dairy products has become an essential aspect of sustainable dairy production. Since dairy cows’ methane emissions are a significant contributor to the CO2 footprint, and the Dutch agricultural sector faces the challenge of further reducing methane emissions with 2.1 Mega tonnes by 2030 and even more by 2050, farmers urgently need cost-effective and efficient ways to reduce methane emissions. Some solutions to reduce enteric methane emissions have been extensively researched. Additives or manure fermentation, for example.

The potential to utilise the natural variation in animals’ methane emissions through breeding has only recently come into focus. Selective breeding as an additional mitigating strategy is cost-effective, permanent and cumulative and can easily be included in daily herd management at a limited expense. Preliminary results have been used to simulate the potential of breeding and show that methane emissions may be reduced by 1% per kg of milk per year at the start, increasing to a 29% methane reduction in 2050.

Significant innovations are needed in four areas to make selective breeding as a mitigation strategy viable:

  1. Extensive and automated registration of methane emissions per individual cow
  2. Breeding value assessment models
  3. Knowledge of the impact of selecting cows with lower emission levels (and other characteristics)
  4. Implementation in practical and widely accepted tools

A large population (100 businesses with 150 cows), phenotyped for individual methane, form the basis for these innovations. The lessons from METHAGENE (COST Action FA1302) have taught us that sniffers can be used to gather information on methane concentrations of individual cows, which can then be ranked from low to high emitting.