Words by Richard Rennie
Alongside this work, Fonterra is also pursuing some of its own in-house technology, developed after hunting through thousands of culture strains catalogued after almost a century of yoghurt and cheese production.
Isolating strains exhibiting particular methane inhibiting genomics has led to “Kowbucha”, a protected technology now being trialled in feed rations with calves on dairy farms around New Zealand.
Scientists are keen to study whether exposure to the product early in their life may promote rumen modifications they then carry with them into lactating adulthood.
At a processing level Fonterra has also been actively pursuing lower emissions, achieving an 11% reduction in GHG emissions from coal in one year, largely from swapping it out for wood pellets in the Te Awamutu plant. The company’s Stirling cheese site in the South Island identified as the company’s first 100% renewable thermal energy site.
Aquaculture start-up company CH4 Global has scaled up its operations on Stewart Island to develop its technology to utilise sustainably harvested red seaweed Asparagopsis armata as a methane reducing feed supplement.
Raising over $4 million in a capital issue last year and working with NIWA, the company is claiming the seaweed could reduce animal methane emissions by 90%.
Growing the spores on submerged ropes on an old oyster farm on the island, the company hopes to grow the industry to a $500 million industry.
CH4 Global was founded two and a half years ago by an international team of senior scientists, proven technology entrepreneurs, and business executives from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
They are actively working to leverage the ground-breaking research findings of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Meat and Livestock Australia, and James Cook University that has led to the global recognition of Asparagopsis as a potential GHG mitigator.
But before these promising technologies can be added into the daily diet of New Zealand’s bovine population, the regulations will require some overhaul.
Officials in MPI are being urged to revisit the Agricultural Compounds & Veterinary Medicines (ACVM) act and rework it to include methane inhibitors, a product not currently covered by this act.
Regulatory experts are expressing frustration at the time taken to get those rules changed, given the tight time frame for New Zealand farmers to meet the 2030 methane reduction target. They also point to Chile and Brazil already approving Bovaer for farmer use.
Technically, given they are not covered under the current rules there is nothing to stop a keen marketer putting a methane inhibitor on the market today. However, processors like Silver Fern Farms and Fonterra would have other thoughts about allowing their farmers to use something that has not been officially covered under food safety/animal welfare legislation.
Dr Jeremy Hill points to four key parameters any product, whether for mitigation or otherwise, has to pass before it can be dispensed to cows. “It has to be good for the planet, good for the farmer in that it is cost effective and practical, and good for the cow, and good for the milk.”
In a recent webinar update on progress at the PGgRc, lead researcher Dr Ron Ronimus revealed that after almost two decades of research, discovery and development, scientists had refined their options down to three classes of compounds, likely to be optimised as a capsule fed to livestock.
He said the age of the livestock being fed the likes of slow-release capsules can complicate matters, with growing stock requiring larger and larger doses. “It is far easier to maintain a steady state dose when delivering it to an adult animal.” He believed a commercial compound may still be two years away from final release.
He suspected final treatment of methane emissions may take a form similar to modern HIV disease treatment, mixing and matching a cocktail of drug/treatment technologies in a rumen environment that is a tough, acidic, reductive place to try and secure a treatment foothold.
If mitigation methods are still some way off full commercial approval, the researchers have made significant inroads into breeding lower methane emitting stock, knowing a good genetic solution can be distributed through the national herd in relatively short time, at relatively low cost.
AgResearch and PGgRc scientists are three generations into lower methane emitting sheep breeding, and are now collecting data on feed efficiency, carcass yield and growth rates, all influencers on methane emission efficiency.
On average, low methane sheep emit 11% less of the gas than the average, per kilo of feed. Dr Suzanne Rowe of AgResearch says the sheep are proven to be profitable and healthy, with no harm exhibited from being selected for lower methane emitters.
Importantly, the scientists are finding the microbes these sheep carry have inheritable variations, meaning they are not “one off” in these particular sheep, and can be passed on. Sheep breeders can already choose to measure their animals’ methane breeding value, working with scientists to get rams measured so they can answer the question if clients ask about it.
The low methane breeding value (BV) is available to any breeder choosing to measure it, or that has animals with a genomic profile very closely related to animals already measured. It is updated in the national system automatically with all other BVs on a fortnightly basis.
Scientists are confident low methane genetics can be rolled out over a couple of years nationally. Their experiences with sheep are also now being applied to cattle, with LIC and CRV Ambreed working on genetic traits in sires, and as in sheep, create a BV for their methane reducing trait.
Dr Harry Clark, Director of the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre likens the efforts in reducing livestock GHG emissions to the efforts of British Olympic cycling coach Dave Brailsford.
“The gains he achieved involved breaking everything down that goes into riding a bike, and then improving each by 1%, achieving a significant increase when all put together.”