New research into animals that give off less nitrogen


New research may hold the key to lowering our emissions, by breeding animals that naturally excrete less nitrogen. 

Utilising the genes of animals that produce less nitrogen could provide farmers with a breakthrough in managing on-farm greenhouse gas emissions.

Two research projects are currently looking to see if there’s a link between the nitrogen content of milk and animal emissions and whether it’s possible to identify and then replicate genes in animals that might control how much nitrogen an animal gives off.

Fonterra’s Less Footprint programme manager, Dr Mike Scarsbrook, said the research is showing it’s not just what the animal eats that matters, but there are also genetic factors in how much nitrogen they excrete.

This means if animals with lower nitrogen emission can be identified, that trait can be bred into the national herds and the whole country can benefit from lower emissions.

Dr Mike Scarsbrook, Fonterra Less Footprint programme manager

Nitrous oxide is a small but important part of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, making up 12% of all emissions in 2016. Like methane, nitrous oxide is a strong contributor to climate change because it’s much more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide – around 300 times better. But unlike carbon dioxide, which can last for thousands of years in the atmosphere, nitrous oxide breaks down in about 114 years.

AgResearch, Massey University, DairyNZ and Abacus Bio are the key research partners on the project, and Fonterra is helping to fund it.

Fonterra is also helping with the related study to see if there’s a link between the nitrogen content of milk and the animal emissions. If this can be established, a new test could be added onto testing Fonterra already does of its milk, helping give farmers information about nitrogen emissions from their herd and eventually helping identify individual animals that are low-emitters.

AgResearch has also filed for an exciting patent that not only builds on this work, but also provides the option for new tools to identify these low-emitting animals at a genetical level.

Mike says monitoring and controlling nitrogen in these new ways has the potential to be a powerful and cost-effective tool for farmers.

“These new tools will help farmers lower their emissions and make better on-farm decisions. Over the longer-term this can be a real game changer – if we can identify the low-nitrogen trait we can breed it into the national herd and permanently lower our emissions.”