Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit

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23.07.14 Reducing methane emissions from sheep

So this week, I am fortunate enough to be spending my time at the Royal Welsh Show. I can’t fail to be impressed by it, it is refreshing to see a show which maintains it’s agricultural focus and its been a great opportunity to talk to Welsh farmers about what theissues are but also have a bit of a look at what advice and research they have going on concerning GHG emissions reductions and climate change mitigation.

On my wanders round the stands I came across a booklet produced by Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) which was entitled Reducing methane emissions from sheep and thought that it would be a good subject for this week’s blog, so here goes.

The Welsh government (as in England) has set out a commitment to reducing GHG emissions by 3% per year from 2011. In Wales the percentage that comes from agriculture is estimated to be around 9% of total emissions.

For sheep production, reducing methane emissions is the main challenge. And as we all know, the actual amount of methane produced by an animal depends on various factors including the level of feed intake, feed quality and differences in an animal’s own efficiency of food conversion.

How to reduce methane emission from sheep

HCC advocate hat here are various different options that will help to reduce emissions from sheep. These can broadly be divided into two categories – nutritional strategies and increasing efficiencies.

Nutritional strategies

One of the ways to reduce the amount of methane emitted by the sheep is to alter the diet that they are eating. This can be done by changing the feed components that they are eating, or adding specific compounds that are designed to suppress methane production. Welsh research is currently looking at the use of high sugar grasses, the addition of garlic to feed and also breeding high lipid content oats (to suppress methane production). Once the results are published, we will keep you up to date.

Increasing efficiency

This approach is based on reducing methane emissions per kilo of lamb produced. Methane production is linked to energy requirements and feed intake therefore although increasing production increases the total energy requirement (and methane produced) the proportion of energy that is required for maintenance is reduced.  When you are looking at levels of production, the overall methane emissions per unit of output is lower for more productive animals. However, a slight word of caution, while improving profitability is one of the key principles to reducing methane emissions, to be effective it needs to come from a drive to be more efficient rather that just by increasing inputs.

Genetic improvement

The HCC have done research into the potential to use production traits in breeding and breed more efficient animals, and then looked at what the effect is on the methane emissions from those more productive animals. Genetic improvement is able to play a vital role in improving production efficiency. Data from HCC (as from EBLEX in England, available in the Toolkit) shows that using high index rams can provide financial benefits ranging from £2 to £3.50 per finished lamb.

Increasing rearing percentage, growth rate of slaughter lambs and increased longevity in replacements and breeding stock will also reduce methane emissions and produce more efficienct animals, and these are traits which can be used in genetic selection.

Research has just finished in Wales looking at the effect of breeding sheep for individual traits on methane emissions.  Traits looked at were lamb growth rate, carcass confirmation and weight, lamb survival, ewe litter size and ewe longevity, and the model considered both hill and lowland flocks.

The full results are available here, but the results show that a reduction in methane emissions is possible from looking at breeding regimes and maximising efficiency.  Changing management to make your flock more efficient will reduce emissions.  For example improving traits such as lamb survival through improvements in flock management will lower methane emissions per tonne of carcass produced.

To read the full report please click here. And if you are visiting the show, do come and say hello, I am in the green pavilion.

17.07.2014 Reducing emissions from livestock: challenges and adaptation

Central to the debate around climate change and agriculture has been livestock’s contribution to emissions. Livestock play a part in agriculture’s carbon footprint; this fact is indisputable but the production of livestock brings many benefits to the UK food chain.

The Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) commissioned a piece of work looking at reducing emissions from livestock. This article, written by Dr David Garwes looks at the contribution livestock makes to the UK food chain, the environment and the farming industry in the UK. This report has examined various strategies that could be adopted in the coming years to help reduce GHG emissions and that may need further research. Some of these measures are summarised below, but to read the full report click here.

Reduced animal numbers

The most cost effective approach is to make every animal more productive, whilst continuing to meet food production needs.

Increased yield from each animal

Improving the genotype of cattle can generate increased yield (kg of meat or litre of milk). It may be possible to include selection traits that bring about a reduced environmental footprint. This would improve the cost of production.

Reduced breeding stock numbers

Improvements in reproductive performance of breeding stock will reduce the numbers of animals that are needed to generate productive offspring. A study from Nottingham University found that if dairy cow fertility returned to the level documented in 1995, methane emission from the national herd would fall by 11%.

Improved feed conversion

Feed is a significant proportion of rearing costs.  Data highlighted in sector specific roadmaps show that there are significant differences between management practices and species in terms of efficiency.

Optimise feed intake

Selection of stock that consume only what is needed for optimal production will reduce pollution from excess nutrients.

Improve nutrient balance in rations

Better ration formulation will allow a balance to be met between nutrients produced and animal demand.

Feed sources that reduce methane and ammonia emissions

Increasing the availability of fermentable carbohydrates in dairy feed promotes higher milk yields and reduces the amount of Nitrogen lost through urination. Examples of plants to add to rations include clover and chicory (high in tannins) and red clover (high in polyphenol oxidase).

Manage manure

Reducing leaching losses and covering slurry storage can be options to consider. Future developments include using nitrification inhibitors and scrubbing effluent air from production units to reduce emissions to the atmosphere.

Use manures as a resource

Apply manure precisely based on nutrient content and crop requirements. The faster slurry can be incorporated into the soil, the lower the nitrous oxide emissions will be,

These points above are expanded and explained in more detail in the full report available here. For more information on reducing emissions from livestock enterprises click here.

14.07.14 Sustainable Organic and Low Input Dairy

The SOLID project is an EU wide initiative that is concerned with promoting sustainable dairy production. It aims to improve the technical performance and economic competitiveness of organic and low input dairy systems in Europe while maintaining their potential to deliver environmental goods and enhance biodiversity.

The project is looking at how feeding, breeding and technology can be used to improve profitability and sustainability through constructing new research, as well as looking at what farmers are doing by producing in-depth case studies.

In the UK a Welsh dairy farm has been put under the spotlight, focussing on managing grassland and herd breeding to improve margins. Click here to read more about it.

If you are interested in finding out more about what the project is up to, and how to assess sustainability in dairy systems the Organic Research Centre is putting on an event on the 24th September. This project workshop will look at sustainability assessments and the various carbon footprinting tools available for dairy farmers, as well as new methods for including soil carbon changes and biodiversity indicators.

If you are interested in attending, click here to download the flier and here for the booking form.

11.07.14 Low methane emitting cattle

Enteric emissions and respiration in the form of methane, together with the losses from manures and land use changes comprise the majority of livestock related greenhouse gas emissions.  Technologies that increase rumen efficiency and lower methane emissions form a vital mitigation strategy to reduce global warming impacts.

The Ruminomics project

Methane from cattle makes up 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and 1% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions according to Phil Garnsworthy professor of dairy science at the University of Nottingham. He is part of Ruminomics, an EU funded research project that is looking at how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. The project is looking at connecting the genetic research, with knowledge on the gastrointestinal microbiomes and feeding to improve the efficiency of rumination (and as such lower methane production and improve environmental impact).

The project has discovered that the amount of methane that cattle produce during rumination can vary. It is investigating whether combining different dietary and breeding options make it possible to produce the same volume of milk with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Current science suggests that there are three issues that determine how much methane the cow emits, the diet, genetics and the rumen microbiology. “It is possible to image cutting emissions from cattle by a fifth, using a combination approach including breeding from lower emitting cattle and changing their diets” explained Garnsworthy.

Interestingly the science also suggests that reducing methane emissions may also have the capacity to increase milk production as the methane is “lost energy” that could go into producing milk. So if the right genetic mix can be found, it is possible that cattle could be bred that are less polluting, more productive and ultimately more profitable. To read the project report please click here.

What can I do now?

In terms of what this means for farmers we will have to wait a while for the scientists to finish the research. However while we wait, do check out the dairy and beef pages on the FCCT website which highlight current research and practical options concerning reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The roadmaps produced over the last few years by EBLEX, DairyCo and BPEX have all suggested that efficient production systems are a good strategy when managing our livestock. DairyCo advocate concentrating on improving the efficiency of milk production through improved feed efficiency. This will benefit the bottom line and reduce GHG emissions per unit of production. Paying attention to improving overall herd health, to increase growth rates, improve fertility and reduce culling rates will all contribute to a healthier and more productive herd.

To read the livestock section of the Toolkit please click here

03.07.14 Theme of the month – Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock

So the theme that we are going to be looking at here at FCCT this month (while hopefully the sun will continue to shine down gloriously!) is GHG emissions from livestock production systems.  This subject has lots of controversy surrounding it, from ex Beatles members encouraging everyone to eat less meat and save the world, to the levy bodies doing some research into economic benefits to be had from reducing emissions from dairy, beef and sheep production. During the month we will be exploring some of these areas in detail and looking at what we can do on-farm to help reduce costs and at the same time improve sustainability and reduce emissions.

So to kick the month off (although will try and stay away from the football puns due to the amazing results from Brazil), here are some stats on livestock’s contribution to emissions to get our teeth into. These initial statistics come from the FAO’s report Tackling Climate Change through livestock which can be downloaded here if you are interested.

The contribution to global emissions of livestock


Emissions from livestock are estimated to be 7.1 gigatonnes of CO₂e per year. This represents 14.5% of human induced GHG emissions.

Below this is broken down into the different sources.


Sources of emissions

If this is broken down it equates to:

  • Feed processing and production (45% of total)

  • Enteric fermentation of ruminants (39%).

  • Manure storage and processing (10%)

  • The remainder is attributable to processing and transportation of animal products.

However its not all bad news. There is massive potential to improve the sector’s environmental performance. The wider adoption of best practices and technologies in feeding, health, husbandry, and manure management could help global livestock sector be more efficient, reduce energy and waste and cut emissions.

The link between efficiency and emissions reduction

There is a direct link between GHG emissions intensities and the efficiency with which producers use natural resources. For livestock production systems nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide emissions effectively represent losses of Nitrogen, energy and organic matter that have an effect on productivity and efficiencies.

This topic of improving efficiency and reducing emissions has been the subject of lots of research and study over the last few years. A couple of things to think about in terms of the effect of reducing emissions on productivity (courtesy of EBLEX) are:

For Sheep – Every 1kg of CO₂ reduction / kg of liveweight equates to an extra 28p/kg increase in gross margin.

For beef cattle – every 5kg of CO₂ reduction / kg of liveweight equates to a 50p/kg increase in gross margin.

With dairy production systems, efficiency and emissions reductions are possible through concentrating on managing feed, manure, fertility, fertiliser and energy use. These will all be looked at throughout the month.

For more information, why not look at our Toolkit section on Livestock?

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