Among the research community, confidence in testing feed additives to reduce methane is high. You get the feeling they see a solution and it’s about trying to refine and fit that solution into an Irish grass production system.
It’s fair to say that breeding is on a good wave also with an ICBF database behind farming to rival the best in the world.
Let’s stand back and look at what is actually happening targeted at reducing methane. In many of the initiatives and innovations, there are other spin-offs or efficiencies that provide a dual or triple benefit to the user.
The issue is ruminants (cows and cattle) are unique in that they can convert grass (plants) into high-quality meat and milk.
However, while the grass is going through the animal’s ruminant converting this inedible fibre to protein methane is produced as part of a complex process.
The challenge for scientists is what can they do to identify the more efficient methane animals and or what can you do to modify the complex digestion process that might reduce the methane output.
Methane is hard to measure in animals at grass. Over 90% comes out the nostrils of the animal. It is almost 15 years since we published a front-page photo of an SF6 tracer strapped to a cow’s back at Lyons/UCD Research farm or the 2009 Moorepark open day.
The more often the animal enters the more measurements are collected
Now the tool of choice to measure methane is what they call the “Greenfeed” tool, which looks the same as a creep feeder for cattle.
What happens with these machines is that when an animal enters to get feed, a sample of methane coming out the nostrils is hoovered up and measured.
The more often the animal enters the more measurements are collected.
From this, an estimate is calculated of daily methane output.
Up to now, these machines have mainly been installed indoors but, of late, researchers have been putting this methane tester on wheels to allow the machine to be parked in a paddock so that methane measurements at grazing can be measured.
Animals only get a trickle of meal to entice them into the feeder.
This machine collects lots of data to measure the methane output from different types of animals to see differences between animals.
So how can scientists use this data and what initiatives can reduce methane?
The four broad categories are: (1) additives broken down into (a) feed and (b) slurry additives; (2) breeding; (3) grazing; multispecies swards, including grass and clover and, (4) good management – better grazing, lower days to slaughter, etc.
International and, indeed, Irish research into methane inhibitors has been going on for the last 40 years or more.
However, it’s only in the last five years or so that the real impetus has come from Government to really push methane inhibitor research to the top of the priority list.
Teagasc researchers Sinead Waters and David Kenny are involved with a number of different national and international organisations on a number of research projects such as RumenPredict and MASTER.
Organisations such as ICBF, UCD and Teagasc all play a part in these trials
The Department of Agriculture funds initiatives to try to link up and identify the rumen bugs that perform in the best animals that produce less methane. Organisations such as ICBF, UCD and Teagasc all play a part in these trials.
On the additive side of the methane game, there are two things in play – feed additives that the animals can eat and hence modify the digestion process, or secondly changes to the slurry itself.
Let’s take the feed additive side first. Seaweed extract, oil extracts, 3 NOP (Bovaer) and olive extracts are all additives that reduce methane.
There have been others trialled down through the years but the source and origin of the additives is important because there is no point in trucking an additive around the world creating more emissions. This rules out some potential solutions.
You would expect seaweed might be a solution as it grows in abundance on the coast but, unfortunately, the science suggests the variety that grows here (the brown seaweed) has little or no effect on methane.
It’s a red seaweed which can reduce methane by up to 36%, according to international research.
Extracts like Agolin, Mootral, Halides, 3 NOP are all included in ongoing Irish research trials with cattle and sheep.
The leading feed additive seems to be an additive called 3 NOP.
The company that owns this additive is called DSM which is a huge Dutch-based multinational. The additive is not yet commercially available and it’s not yet retail-priced. However, DSM has licensed the product to scientific bodies such as Teagasc to allow them to carry out trials using the product to see if it works.
A beef study on cattle indoors has been completed and the results look promising but are not yet published.
Reading between the lines, it looks like a 30% reduction in methane emissions is on the cards.
A dairy study is planned to start in the autumn.
So if this additive is working, then getting it into the animals at grass is the challenge. Including a feed additive in the diet is easier when cows or cattle are inside all year round on a TMR diet.
The challenge for Ireland therefore is trying to get this additive into maybe a slow-release bolus.
New Zealand’s Fonterra has teamed up with DSM and initiated trials on grazing.
No published results have yet been released.
So, at a national level, the question becomes, if farmers use this additive will farming get a benefit in terms of reduced overall emissions?
The thinking is yes, this will register a benefit nationally.
At farm level, if and when it becomes commercially available the decision for the farmer will then come down to a cost-benefit decision.
The farmer will have to answer the question, eg is it worth feeding 2g per day of this additive to my cows to reduce methane? For the moment, it’s wait and see what is finalised on the research side and then commercial availability.
On the manure side, Galway-based company Easyfix is working on two different elements.
Easyfix sales manager Ronan Boyle said: “Two years ago, we bought a UK company that produces a manure aeration system different to everything else on the market. All serious trials conducted show that, on average, these systems can reduce methane by 51% with a range from 40% to 70% reduction.”
Retrofit is possible and the cost for an average Irish farm will be between €15,000 and €20,000
Easyfix has trials ongoing around Ireland putting real numbers and real confidence behind the Easyfix slurry technology. As well as reducing methane emissions, the other upside is an increase in the nutrient content of slurry with a doubling of the nitrogen content.
Retrofit is possible and the cost for an average Irish farm will be between €15,000 and €20,000.
According to Ronan the initial investment is often not maximised on Irish farms.
One of the first outcomes that became apparent when methane data first became available was that animals that are better feed converters are more efficient methane users. So, in 2006, a study showed that feed-efficient cattle produced 28% less methane on a high-concentrate diet. Five years later, a study showed 27% less methane on high-quality grass.
There is a body of evidence built up that shows good management can contribute hugely to reducing methane. So what does “good management” mean? In reality, it means extended grazing, breeding high-EBI animals, calving at two years of age, better liveweight gain at grass, lowering age at slaughter and reducing waste.
It has installed Greenfeed machines in the sheds in Tully so that the animals’ methane is measured
ICBF currently dedicates the Tully centre in Kildare to the methane cause. It has installed Greenfeed machines in the sheds in Tully so that the animals’ methane is measured.
Cattle of various breeds and sires are brought to Tully for a 120-day finishing period and during that time the methane output is measured. It means lots of data is collected showing the differences between cattle.
To cut a long story short, the work is already showing that cattle emitting less methane are more feed-efficient.
After all, methane gas is a waste, so less waste means more productivity.
The other key message coming out of this work already is that cattle can be eating almost the same diet, gaining almost the same weight, but, some animals are producing 30% less methane.
So, the job of work for ICBF and the researchers now is to collect lots more data from different groups of animals, in different feed systems and link the data to the genetics
So there is a ranking between animals with some animals producing 30% less methane per day. This preliminary work effectively means we potentially can breed and select low methane-producing animals, the same way we can breed high protein in milking cows or U grade cattle.
So, the job of work for ICBF and the researchers now is to collect lots more data from different groups of animals, in different feed systems and link the data to the genetics to identify the genes for the low methane.
The other two legs to the methane game are the good management element (lower slaughter age and better grazing) and the multispecies swards.
We have covered both these topics in depth in other articles.
Both can be as significant if not more significant than additives when taken in the round. If clover and ryegrass swards can significantly reduce the artificial nitrogen required then not only methane emissions are reduced but, overall, economic efficiency can be significantly improved.