Irish scientists find way to breed dairy cows with lower ‘carbon hoofprint’

18 Nov 2022

Cows queuing up for a breath test that measures their methane output while eating. Image: VistaMilk

The moo-ve comes as Ireland’s agriculture sector strives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter by 2030.

Researchers in Ireland have developed a way to help farmers breed cattle based on their “carbon hoofprint”.

A team at VistaMilk, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for the dairy sector, has added a carbon efficiency layer to animals in the EBI – the breeding tool that Irish farmers already use for cattle.

The VistaMilk scientists worked with international researchers at AbacusBio on the tweaks to the EBI, which has been in use for more than two decades in its present form.

The EBI helps farmers identify the most profitable bulls and cows for breeding dairy herd replacements. Thanks to the work of VistaMilk and AbacusBio, they now will be able to selectively breed calves based on environmental factors as well as profit.

The new EBI tool will go live in January 2023. However, researchers said the effects will take a few years to show as the changes are based on the principle that genetic characteristics are passed down over generations of cattle.

But they hope the development will contribute to the Irish agriculture sector’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25pc by 2030.

“You can’t argue with the benefits of breeding programmes – the improvements build over time and once they’re established, they don’t drop off,” said Donagh Berry, director of VistaMilk.

“We’ve been working with the breeding index for two decades and we’ve seen a 14pc reduction in carbon hoofprint. This new piece of work specifically targets carbon efficiency in cattle and will provide farmers with the choice of breeding green into their cows.”

Berry also said there is no reason why farmers shouldn’t use the EBI carbon index tool as they have to breed cattle “and they might as well ensure that they’re doing it in a way that improves the performance, the value and the environmental impact of their animals”.

Siobhan Ring, senior research geneticist at the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, added: “Now we can include ‘more carbon efficient’ in that list of improvements to our animals – which means we’re delivering more sustainable and environmentally friendly dairy products to the consumer, attributes which we know are increasingly important to them when they’re making food choices.”

The topic of how cattle farmers can achieve 25pc cuts to their emissions was tackled on RTÉ’s Future Island programme this week. Featuring Silicon Republic editor Elaine Burke, the show about science and Irish research was running as part of Science Week 2022.

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic