Defra announces £2.9m funding to breed low methane sheep
Industrywide R&D project to help sheep farmers contribute to net zero
The sheep sector has been awarded £2.9m from DEFRA’s Farming Innovation Programme, delivered by Innovate to carry out an industrywide project designed to breed sheep with a naturally low carbon footprint and in turn help English farmers to make a positive contribution to UK agriculture’s journey towards net zero.
Called Breed for CH4nge – Breeding Low Methane Sheep and led by Innovis, leading supplier of performance-recorded rams, the three-year initiative will measure methane emissions from a total of 13,500 sheep in 45 flocks, collect the necessary data and build and develop the tools required to genetically reduce methane emissions and improve the efficiency of the national flock. The project will eventually demonstrate the impact of low-carbon sheep on whole farm carbon footprints.
Innovis will partner with other progressive, performance-recording maternal sheep breeder groups including Sheep Improvement Group (SIG), breeding the Exlana, Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders (PRLB) and the Centurion Group of Dorset Sheep Breeders to deliver the research and host on farm events.
Scientific input, technology and additional genetics expertise will be provided by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Harper Adams University, while Signet Breeding Services, part of AHDB, will provide performance recording services. Industry and supply chain partners – Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL), Pilgrims Pride and Waitrose, will help steer farm system modelling including the use of carbon calculators and will drive an integrated knowledge exchange (KE) programme. National Sheep Association (NSA) will provide a direct and important link with the wider industry and a ‘guiding hand’ regarding policy issues.
Innovis chief executive, Dewi Jones explains: “We are an alliance of forward-thinking sheep farmers and commercially driven breeders applying genetic science and using performance-recording to deliver profitable maternal genetics at significant scale, all of which are designed to make the most efficient use of grass and forage to produce sustainable and healthy lamb of high nutritive value. Making use of grasslands by way of sheep grazing also helps sequester carbon into the soil.”
He continues: “This partnership unifies us with academics, a key lamb supply-chain and industry bodies whose networks extend to thousands of English and other UK based sheep farmers. We’ve all delivered many successful projects, applied research results on-farm and communicated with a wide audience but never before combined forces; Breed for CH4nge will consequently build on and strengthen existing relationships.”
The project will initially develop on-farm protocols and use new innovative tools and technologies including Portable Accumulation Chambers (PAC) to predict methane emissions from grazing sheep alongside measures of health, production and efficiency traits at the individual animal level.
Further measurements, including rumen size and microbiota, will improve understanding of the underlying biology and ensure that reductions in methane emissions positively contribute to sustainable genetic improvement of ewe productivity on UK grass and forage.
This comprehensive set of information will enable understanding of the genetic control of these characteristics and DNA sampling will allow relationships with the underlying genome of the sheep to be investigated. This will result in tools to compare the breeding value of sheep in the flocks, idenitifying breeding stock that will contribute to improving farm carbon footprint.
To widen the Breed for CH4nge project’s impact beyond the 45 flocks involved, plans are to roll out a wide-reaching communication programme with other sheep breeders and farmers throughout England, in collaboration with supply chain partners and wider industry bodies, including NSA. The initiative will be designed to identify the most effective ways of communicating the project’s outputs and implications to other farmers and help support them to make genetic changes.
CIEL’s Dr Mark Young says: “Modern genetic tools provide the means to focus in on hard to measure traits like methane production then incorporate them into balanced breeding programmes using DNA based genomics tools. The wider breeding programmes that Innovis, SIG, PRLB and Centurion run use such tools very effectively so they are well-placed to reduce emissions and improve the efficiency of sheep production using genetics. This is greatly needed to meet our net zero aspirations.”
SRUC’s Nicola Lambe comments: “This project will build on international research on breeding to reduce methane emissions from sheep, to the point of industry implementation in UK flocks. The range of data being collected in this project will let us look at relationships of methane emissions with other traits that are important for productivity and sustainability of UK maternal sheep flocks. This will enable us to design the most appropriate breeding programme to reduce methane emissions from profitable sheep.”
NSA’s Phil Stocker says: NSA is delighted to be a partner in Breed for CH4nge and I see this as a highly significant R&D project to move Britain’s sheep industry forward in terms of productivity gains, alongside reducing methane emissions and improving carbon footprints. These outcomes are directly aligned to overcome some of the challenges that have been placed at the door of British agriculture in this post-CAP era. We have to move faster in terms of farming being a solution to climate change, and play our part in Britains 30% methane reduction by 2030 targets agreed during COP 26. Through this work the consortium will identify ways to reduce our emissions but also ensure we do this in a way that maintains the wide range of sustainability traits inherent in many of our flocks. Importantly, the project is designed so that, in time, lessons will be able to be adopted by any breed and breeders and I see that as key to improving our genetics without weakening our genetic pool.”
Waitrose’s Matt Penfold comments: “Sheep make an important contribution to the British countryside and if we can farm them more sustainably, then the project outcomes could have a very significant environmental benefit. Our involvement in this project is part of our wider net-zero science-based targets which will see us reach these aims within our British supply chains by 2035.”
Dewi Jones adds: “We collectively believe that this project will help to further improve the sustainability of our sheep by using genetic science and breeding to naturally reduce the amount of methane which is a natural by-product of the sheep’s forage digestion process. Combine with the integrated knowledge exchange programme, and we have an initiative that will ultimately reduce flock carbon footprint, help improve sheep farmers’ productivity, sustainability, resilience and profitability.”