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Using Genetics to reduce methane emissions from the Irish sheep sector

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with special responsibility for research and innovation, Martin Heydon T.D., today, Saturday 17th June, launched new breeding values for sheep aimed at reducing methane emissions and supporting delivery of climate emission reductions.

The Minister launched the new breeding values at the Sheep2023 event in Gurteen Agricultural College, County Tipperary. Speaking at the event,  Minister Heydon highlighted, the important scientific breakthrough can enable the Irish sheep industry to reduce methane output through animal genetics.

The new breeding values for methane emissions are based on collaborative research between Teagasc and Sheep Ireland and are part of the €3 million research project ‘GREENBREED’, funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The key research findings were:

  • Large differences in daily methane emissions were found between ewes, with 17% of these differences being traced to genetics.
  • The genetically identified highest 20% of emitting animals are expected to emit 15% more methane per day compared to the lowest 20% emitting animals.

Commenting on this new scientific development, Minister Heydon said; “This innovative and world class research, conducted as part of the Department funded GREENBREED project, represents the dawn of a new era for the Irish sheep breeding programme. It creates a pathway to reduce methane emissions in a way that is economically and environmentally sustainable with results that are permanent and cumulative. My Department’s research programme is committed to providing tangible solutions to help farmers deliver on the sector’s ambition to reduce emissions”.

Dr. Nóirín McHugh, Teagasc and the lead researcher of this research said; “The research based on methane records on over 5,000 animals from all across Ireland shows large genetic variation for methane emissions exists within the national sheep flock. Through the €uro-star indexes, we have the tools available to harness these differences to breed more environmentally sustainable animals, without negatively impacting an animal’s performance and profitability”.

Kevin McDermott, Sheep Ireland manager, said; “The close working relationship between Teagasc and Sheep Ireland is once again paying dividends for the Industry. The central database has allowed the researchers to access all the available performance data in combination with the new methane data to produce what we are launching today.

The €uro-Star sheep indexes have already proven to deliver across a range of traits, and this new research on methane allows for the publication of only the world’s second national genomic evaluation for methane emissions in sheep. The new methane breeding value is now available on all genotyped animals through the Sheep Ireland run website www.ramsearch.ie and will form part of our breeding indexes from 2024 onwards.”