Greenhouse gas reduction in livestock agriculture
Greenhouse Gas Reduction in Livestock Agriculture
Forage-based livestock production provides many economic and human health benefits, and rearing livestock in areas unsuitable for cultivation of crops offers additional food security while avoiding conflicts associated with the use of high-quality land to produce animal feed. However, ruminant agriculture contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with direct outputs of methane from enteric fermentation and indirect outputs of nitrous oxide from inefficiencies in the use of fertiliser and feed nitrogen use. Approximately 14.5 % of global anthropogenic GHG emissions come from livestock agriculture, and about 65% of that comes from cattle (meat and milk) production. The UK has committed to a net zero GHG emissions target by 2050, so measuring, understanding, and reducing GHG emissions from UK agriculture is a critical element of our work to help the UK economy.
IBERS recently led a consortium of organisations in Defra’s GHG Platform project (AC0115), which generated novel livestock data for the improvement of the UK’s GHG agricultural methane emissions inventory reporting commitments. Livestock breeding plays an important long-term role in reductions of GHG emissions, although changes in animal nutrition can achieve significant gains more quickly and easily using appropriate dietary manipulation of existing animals.
Approaches & Platforms
Approaches and Platforms/Resources
Our aim is to play a fundamental role in supporting UK agriculture to reach its ambition to become net zero by 2050. We will help to reduce GHG emissions from ruminant livestock through improved animal nutrition by supplying improved feeds that better meet productive animal requirements, and to optimise feed utilisation to minimise pollutant output. This involves a combination of strategies, including improvements in ration formulation (feed requirements) to manipulation and replacement of key dietary components (feed supply) that help reduce the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Through integrating the use of the latest varieties of forage plants and increased understanding of animal biology, we are working towards reducing the GHG emissions intensity of livestock production (grams of carbon dioxide equivalents per kg of product; meat and milk) and ultimately reduce total GHG emissions from livestock agriculture, leading to a net zero future.
We are taking a multi-level approach to the investigation of methane and waste nitrogen emissions from using small scale lab-based methods (gas production), analysis of diets and dietary treatments in individual animals, through to farm-scale assessments and modelling. Our work covers sheep and cattle, investigating all stages of the animal’s life from birth to product (meat and milk). We measure methane emissions from cattle and sheep, using respiration chambers, the sulphur hexafluoride technique, and GreenFeed® methane analysers, allowing us to determine emissions in all types of environment – housing to hillside. Understanding nutrient intake is critical to understanding GHG emissions, and we have facilities for measuring feed intakes of individual animals both manually and automatically using Insentec RIC Feeders (beef and dairy cows) and Calan Gates (sheep). We have capabilities to complete detailed metabolic studies, leading to more efficient use of feed and fine-tuning of genetics to produce ruminant food products efficiently with the least environmental impact. We are working with the UK Agritech Centre CIEL: Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock, to provide the Small Ruminant Research Platform (https://www.cielivestock.co.uk/beefandsheepcapability/). These methods are being used to test dietary modifications and direct the outputs of our plant breeding activities, which include forages, pulses and cereals, that aim to develop livestock feeds that better meet animal requirements and make more efficient use of diet nutrients.
Key Research Insights
We aspire to increase our fundamental understanding of plant and ruminant biology, particularly where the two meet – when animals eat plants and digest them with the help of rumen microbes.
Livestock nutrition work has capitalised on plant breeding activities at IBERS to achieve significant improvements in the use of forage grasses with increased water-soluble carbohydrate (sugar) content. Feeding high-sugar grasses has improved milk production in dairy cows and significantly improved the efficiency of diet nitrogen use by allowing improved use of feed nutrients in the rumen.
Internationally, we are working with plant breeders in South America to develop tropical forages that improve the productivity of growing beef cattle, allowing an increase in stocking rates compared to conventional grazing pastures, and enabling land to be spared for alternative uses such as reforestation.
We are working with European partners to develop ration formulation models that allow us to accurately feed dairy cows with lower inputs of feed protein, increasing diet nitrogen use efficiency and reducing nitrogen excretion outputs.
Current Projects / Grants
- Advancing sustainable forage-based livestock production systems in Colombia (CoForLife). Newton Fund via BBSRC, 2019-2021. With University of Glasgow and CIAT. https://colombiagrasslands.com/
- CowficieNcy - an EU Marie Sklodowska-Curie RISE programme to improve cattle N use efficiency, with partners in the EU and the US. 2018-2022. http://www.cowficiency.org/
- PeaGen - a BBSRC-funded LINK project breeding and using novel peas for sustainable livestock production https://www.pgro.org/peagen-project/
- Capturing effects of diet on emissions from ruminant systems (CEDERS). ERA-NET ERA-GAS, UK funding from Defra. With Reading University and European partners. https://www.eragas.eu/en/eragas/Research-projects/CEDERS-1.htm