Feed efficiency reduces methane emissions

EDMONTON — Feed efficient cows come with an environmental bonus because they also release less methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Research has found heifers selected for low residual feed intake consumed 7.1 percent less feed and emitted 6.5 percent less methane per day than the average animal, said researcher John Basarab at the Livestock Gentec conference held in Edmonton earlier this fall.

“Methane emissions is essentially driven by feed intake. The more it eats, the more methane it produces,” he said.

A major project studying emissions from feed efficient animals is underway. Major funding for the $1.6 million project came from the former Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, as well as the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corp. CMEC was created in 2009 to support projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

Feed accounts for 52 to 75 percent of the cost of beef production, so there is a strong motivation to find more efficient animals.

Feed efficiency is a heritable trait that could improve a producer’s bottom line because cattle eat less to reach the same body weight.

“Getting an animal to eat less or the same and produce more or the same amount of product is a complex question,” said Basarab, who researches feed efficiency and its genetic correlations with other traits.

So far, research has found that efficient animals are better able to digest food and can handle more dry matter.

There is also a temperament difference. Feed-efficient beef animals calm down more quickly in new situations compared to less efficient animals that take longer to settle into new situations and take up feeding.

“We do see consistently a difference in temperament and how those efficient heifers settle to grazing and new stressors,” he said.

They also know residual feed intake and growth traits are not genetically correlated. There are efficient animals that gain quickly and efficient animals that gain slowly.

Low residual feed intake as a genetic trait has no effect on female productivity and fertility, pregnancy, weaning weights, carcass merit or other productivity factors.

Methane emission studies are a subset of the International Efficient Dairy Genome Project. Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland and Australia are all participating with an overall objective to improve feed efficiency and reduce methane emissions in dairy cattle using genomics. These two traits are not currently selected in the dairy industry.

It is estimated that breeding animals with increased feed efficiency and reduced methane emissions can reduce feed costs by $108 per cow per year and decrease methane emissions by an estimated 11 to 26 percent.

Researchers at the University of Guelph plan to monitor a dairy herd at a new facility at Elora, Ont., this fall.

Selecting dairy cows for feed efficiency and lower emissions may be more complicated than it is for beef animals because a host of factors like lactation, milk components, somatic cell counts, body condition score, feed efficiency and feed intake need to be considered in this project, said Filippo Miglior from the University of Guelph

“You have to think very carefully about what is your trait and what you want to select for,” he said.

About 125 cows will be placed in a custom designed tie-stall barn where feed is delivered and measured via a special computerized system. The first methane emissions will be measured by December, said Christina Baes of the university.

All bulls used for artificially insemination are already genotyped and about five percent of cows have been surveyed. The cows will calve at this location and their offspring will be entered into the program.

That information should start to reveal how the animals are similar and different from one another. Ultimately, genomic indexes can be provided including information on methane emissions from individuals.

To further test the research, co-operating farmers plan to test cattle in real-life situations.

Sunalta Farms at Ponoka, Alta., could become the largest dairy feed monitoring installation in North America.

The farm is participating in the research, which involves 450 cows to be monitored for feed intake, milk production and other factors.

J.P. Brouwer, a partner in family-owned Sunalta Farms, sees the project as a good fit with what they are trying to accomplish in terms of animal welfare, productivity and longevity.

“With this particular project, saying “yes” was incredibly easy. As a farm, we get individual intake information on our animals and we get scientists to evaluate it for us. There is huge benefit there for us,” he said at the meeting.

“I don’t know if I totally understand what the deal is with (residual feed intake). My biggest interest is feed conversion, feed in and milk out for as long as possible because health traits need to be part of it. I think you will have better feed conversion with higher dry matter intake,” Brouwer said.

  • methane, mostly from enteric fermentation
  • nitrous oxide from manure application and storage and use of inorganic nitrogen and nitrogen fertilizer for crop production
  • carbon dioxide from fossil fuel consumption

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