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    Future Farm expertise and flock data to feed into £2.9M low carbon sheep project

    Posted 6 July 2023

    “We are delighted to be offering our research expertise – and our performance-recorded Lleyn flock – as part of the work, and it is great to know our data will be helping develop sheep which are both better for farmers and better for the environment.” 

    Two sheep in a field

    A £2.9m project from DEFRA's Farming Innovation Programme to breed sheep with a naturally low carbon footprint will use data and research from the Harper Adams Lleyn flock. 

    Delivered by Innovate UK, the ‘Breed for CH4nge - Breeding Low Methane Sheep’ project led by Innovis, a leading supplier of performance-recorded rams, aims to help English sheep farmers lower their carbon footprint and support agriculture’s journey towards net zero. 

    Over three years, the project will measure methane emissions from a total of 13,500 sheep across 45 flocks, and will use the data produced to build and develop tools to genetically reduce methane emissions and improve the efficiency of the national flock. The project will eventually demonstrate the impact of low-carbon sheep on whole farm carbon footprints. 

    Scientific input, technology and additional genetics expertise will be provided at institutions including Harper Adams University, where Dr Sarah Morgan, Beef and Sheep Production Lecturer, will be leading the research. 

    She said: “This project will be taking data ‘from the field’ including here on the Harper Adams Future Farm, and feeding it right back into the industry – working with a vast range of partners on a multi-million pound project.” 

    “We are delighted to be offering our research expertise – and our performance-recorded Lleyn flock – as part of the work, and it is great to know our data will be helping develop sheep which are both better for farmers and better for the environment.” 

    Three other members of Harper Adams staff – Innovation Manager Dr Eric Siquerios, Elizabeth Creak Chair in Agri-Tech Economic Modelling Professor Karl Behrendt and Animal Production and Health Lecturer Nicky Naylor – will also be helping develop the project. 

    Nicky added: “This research is also going to support a number of final year student projects – so this work will not only benefit our flock, but will also benefit our students – as well as benefit the wider industry.” 

    Other sheep breeder groups involved include the Sheep Improvement Group (SIG), breeding the Exlana, Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders (PRLB) and the Centurion Group of Dorset Sheep Breeders who will assist delivery of the research and host on farm events, and Signet Breeding Services, part of AHDB, providing performance recording services.  

    Industry and supply chain partners – Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL), Pilgrims Pride and Waitrose, will steer farm system modelling including the use of carbon calculators and drive an integrated knowledge exchange (KE) programme.  

    The National Sheep Association (NSA) will link with the wider industry and offer a ‘guiding hand’ regarding policy issues. 

    Additional scientific input, technology and genetics expertise will be provided by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). 

    Innovis chief executive, Dewi Jones said: “We are an alliance of forward-thinking sheep farmers and commercially driven breeders applying genetic science and using performance-recording to deliver profitable maternal genetics at significant scale, all of which are designed to make the most efficient use of grass and forage to produce sustainable and healthy lamb of high nutritive value. Making use of grasslands by way of sheep grazing also helps sequester carbon into the soil.” 

    “This partnership unifies us with academics, a key lamb supply-chain and industry bodies whose networks extend to thousands of English and UK sheep farmers. We’ve all delivered many successful projects, applied research results on-farm and communicated with a wide audience but never before combined forces; ‘Breed for Ch4ange’ will consequently build on and strengthen existing relationships.” 

    The project will initially develop on-farm protocols and use new innovative tools and technologies including Portable Accumulation Chambers (PAC) to predict methane emissions from grazing sheep alongside measures of health, production and efficiency traits at the individual animal level.  

    Further measurements, including rumen size and microbiota, will improve understanding of underlying biology and ensure that reductions in methane emissions positively contribute to sustainable genetic improvement of ewe productivity on UK grass and forage.  

    The information gathered will enable understanding of the relationships between and genetic control of these characteristics, and DNA sampling will allow the underlying genome of the sheep to be investigated. This will help develop tools to compare the breeding value of sheep in the flocks, identifying stock that will contribute to a lower farm carbon footprint.  

    Dr Mark Young of CIEL added: “Modern genetic tools provide the means to focus in on hard to measure traits like methane production then incorporate them into balanced breeding programmes using DNA based genomics tools. The wider breeding programmes that Innovis, PRLB, SIG and Centurion run use such tools very effectively so they are well-placed to reduce emissions and improve the efficiency of sheep production using genetics. This is greatly needed to meet our Net Zero aspirations.” 

    Further plans could see a communication programme developed for other sheep breeders and farmers throughout England, working alongside supply chain partners and wider industry bodies, including NSA. This will identify the most effective ways of communicating the project’s outputs and implications to other farmers and help support them to make genetic changes. 

    Dewi Jones adds: “We collectively believe that this project will help to further improve the sustainability of our sheep by using genetic science and breeding to naturally reduce the amount of methane, which is a natural by-product of the sheep’s forage digestion process. Combined with the integrated knowledge exchange programme, we have an initiative that will ultimately reduce flock carbon footprint and help improve sheep farmers’ productivity, sustainability, resilience and profitability.”  

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