How simple cow management can reduce methane emissions

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AS the cattle industry faces increasing pressure to reduce methane emissions, a producer in New South Wales has studied practical ways to reduce the footprint by managing cows on a commercial farm.

Many options are beginning to appear in the world of methane reduction – including algae supplements and carbon farming to offset emissions. But herd efficiency is also important.

Stud farm and commercial producer Jon Wright presented at the third session of Meat & Livestock Australia’s webinar series on ‘Carbon Accounting for Australian Grazing Systems’ last week.

While Mr. Wright is well known for his work on efficient feed conversion, he presented a series of ways to manage females for reduced emissions.

“Any management technique that will reduce herd intake, without reducing production, will help reduce methane production,” he said.

“There are two aspects to reducing herd emissions with cows, one is accessing genetics which gives us smaller cows and the other is fat cows.

“We do everything we can to prevent our cows from eating more than necessary. We know that a cow will eat 2.5% of her body weight if you let her, but she will maintain her body weight and pregnancy if you give her half. Joining 450kg heifers is a waste of money and a waste of methane.

Mr Wright said his cow herd was centered on a rotational grazing system, which helped to reduce the amount of feed intake.

“We have our pregnant females following our production stock as they rotate through the paddocks,” he said.

“This high-density pasture creates a manure effect that prevents the cows from eating. We see it all the time with large numbers of cows in small paddocks where they walk around trying to find grass between the manure and the urine.

“Another interesting idea on reducing intake in cows is the one-way gates at the waterholes, where they come for a drink in the morning and they are not allowed out for a while.”

The “no herd of cows”

Mr Wright said a concept called ‘no cow herding’ was coming into the conversation when it came to reducing methane.

“It came out of America a long time ago and it hasn’t been talked about much since,” he said.

“Basically this means that all heifers are artificially inseminated with sexed semen to produce a heifer calf, these heifers give birth to their calves, wean their calves, and then they are fattened.”

Mr Wright said the idea was to remove the cost of feed to keep cows in a herd – and ultimately reduce emissions.

“The heifers going to market are still young females, with young teeth, and they are always going to get the best price,” he said.

“That would mean buying replacement heifers every year, but the idea is to reduce the cost of feeding the cow.”

The reduction of methane, key to the image of beef

As business and government set emissions reduction targets and industry faces pressure to cut emissions, Wright said industry as a whole must take responsibility.

“In beef production, 90% of emissions occur on the farm and it’s too much to ask commercial producers to take responsibility for all those emissions,” he said.

“So we are constantly asking the rest of the operators in the chain, which includes the seed stock industry, processors and feedlots, to give us clear market signals that will help farmers reduce their emissions.

“I don’t see us getting a premium for our product if we reduce emissions, but we will potentially have people walking away from our product en masse if we don’t communicate that we take it seriously.”

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