Research led by Dr Phil Vercoe, Deputy Director of Animal Production Systems at The University of Western Australia, aims to find ways of reducing the methane output from grazing livestock.
Individual sheep burp out about 20 litres and cattle up to 280 litres of methane a day, Dr Vercoe said. "This is great energy loss for the animals, but more importantly and given the number of farm animals, it is the major source of greenhouse emissions from agriculture."
The UWA-based research is part of Australia's Farming Future, Climate Change Research program, announced by Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Tony Burke, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, the nation's third largest source of emissions. There are around 85 million sheep in Australia, more than 28 million beef cattle, three million dairy cattle and three million farmed goats.
While UWA's Sheep Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) in conjunction with NSW Department of Primary Industries is looking into the possibility of breeding sheep that burp less, the UWA-based Future Farm Industries CRC, along with the CSIRO, is assessing the potential for native Australian forage plants to be introduced into the grazing systems.
"The sheep breeding project aims to reveal how much of methane production in sheep is related to the genetics. The emissions from sheep are commonly measured in special ‘methane chambers', one sheep at a time, but developing a simple and quick on-farm method such as breath testing will allow us to measure methane from large numbers of sheep in short time," Dr Vercoe said.
"In the forage project, however, we're looking at different grazing strategies, for example mixing plants that will result in lower methane emissions when grazed with plants that will still enable the animals to thrive. Some of the native plants we're looking at include acacias and eremophilas."
Dr Vercoe said if grazing livestock could be either bred or fed to produce less methane, the production of meat and wool would increase - and there would be less greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.