Sheep farmers can increase profitability while lowering emissions

Date published: 26 January 2023

Area of Expertise:

“Sheep farmers aiming to lower their greenhouse gas emissions and become more profitable have a number of options available to them”, one of Northern Ireland’s leading agricultural scientists has said.

Head of Sheep Research at AFBI, Dr Aurelie Aubry

Aurélie Aubry, a researcher at the Agri-food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) cited the findings from the ‘Net Zero and Livestock’ report produced in 2022 by the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock (CIEL), that outlines a range of measures that have been proven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for sheep farmers.

Improving productivity is crucial for the sheep sector if it is to reduce its environmental impacts”, Aurélie began.

This can be achieved by genetic improvement such as using Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) when selecting breeding rams and by introducing hybrid vigour into the flock through crossbreeding maternal strategies

AFBI’s long term research programme has investigated these strategies in partnership with a number of commercial farms and has demonstrated how improvements in efficiency, achieved by increasing key traits namely lamb output, ewe longevity and lamb growth, has helped farms become more profitable while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We have also undertaken nutrition research which found that supplementing lamb diets with feed containing microalgae can directly decrease methane emissions produced by the animals by up to 25%, something that can go a long way to helping reduce emissions from sheep farms.

Aurélie’s work and input is also informed by CIEL’s ‘Net Zero and Livestock’ report that saw AFBI researchers work in collaboration with scientists and researchers from Queen’s University, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Rothamsted Research, to provide pragmatic advice for farmers in the sheep sector with a range of mitigations that can be implemented to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

CIEL Report Findings

Leader of the science consortium which delivered the CIEL report, Professor Elizabeth Magowan of AFBI highlighted that the report examined both lowland and upland farms and that the most effective measures can be grouped broadly into two main categories, nutrition-based and management-based strategies.

Alongside improving production efficiency as noted above, a key focus of nutrition based mitigation measures is to ensure that forage, which represents the majority of the diet for breeding, growing and finishing sheep, is improved to ensure both quality and utilisation of forage. Another key mitigation is to reduce the need for artificial fertilisers while maintaining or enhancing the sward productivity. This can be done by including legumes in pasture mix and promoting soil health.

One of the most successful mitigation measures identified in the modelling both at lowland and hillside farms was the introduction of dietary methane inhibitors and legumes which reduced emissions by as much as 22%. Increasing starch and concentrate proportions in the diet within recommended guidance levels can also reduce methane production per unit of feed. This should also increase liveweight gain and ewe litter size but should only be adopted based on an expert nutritionist’s advice.

Central to ensuring successful mitigation is measurement. The report advises that farmers should complete regular carbon audits of their farm using a reliable carbon calculator to establish a baseline and to identify areas where they can reduce emissions and their carbon footprint.

Using 2 case study farms representing hill farming, reductions in their carbon footprint of between 49 and 67% were found and 36.7% for a lowland case study farm.  These reductions were as a result of adopting a range of mitigations, with the inclusion of methane inhibitors having the most impact.

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