Meat & Livestock News

Sheep Breeders Cautioned Against Overemphasis on Methane Reduction

South Otago sheep and beef farmer Hamish Bielski has raised concerns regarding the push to breed sheep with lower methane emissions. He warns that this focus might overshadow other essential traits cultivated in New Zealand over years of sheep breeding.

One notable initiative in recent times was the Beef + Lamb Genetics Low Input Trial, which aimed to identify productive and efficient sheep with minimal inputs. However, the trial also became a platform for methane research. 

Studies indicate that sheep bred for low methane emissions tend to be smaller, requiring more quality feed to sustain productivity. Such sheep also correlate with higher wool weight and reduced body condition scores, potentially leading to increased costs and reduced efficiency.

Bielski poses a critical question: Which of the many productive traits developed over decades should be compromised to reduce methane emissions? 

Traits such as reproduction, survival, growth rate, meat yield, adult weight, body condition score, and resilience to diseases like facial eczema have all been carefully selected to maximise farm returns. These traits directly influence farm profitability.

He further criticises naming the methane measurement programme as the “cool sheep programme”, suggesting that a more accurate name might be the “skinny sheep project”. 

Bielski also highlights concerns about the potential negative impacts of methane selection, which he feels haven’t been adequately addressed by Beef + Lamb Genetics.

In conclusion, Bielski emphasises the importance of supporting breeders in their choices and focusing on breeding resilient and productive sheep. He quotes Syd Harris, stating, “The greatest enemy of progress is not stagnation, but false progress”.