Vets Diary: Debate spreading over methane production

The subject of our environment, climate change and pollution has gained considerable media coverage over the past few years and the topic is having an affect on livestock farming.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 05 July, 2019, 13:00
Scientific research is under way to reduce emissions from methane.

Farming is essential. Food production in a variety of formats is a fundamental requirement for the sustenance of human and animal life.

Clearly it is beneficial for all to be able to produce food in a sustainable way, allowing us to feed the world without draining the natural resources of our environment.

There has always been this ethos within organic farming and several local farmers have resolved to produce food sustainably throughout their lifetime, however, we are now beginning to see this rationale being adopted by farming groups and there are membership schemes which audit farms to ensure compliance.

There is considerable debate regarding the production of methane by ruminants (predominantly cattle) and its affect as a greenhouse gas.

Ruminants eat relatively indigestible foodstuffs rich in cellulose such as grass, which their gut bacteria break down into utilisable energy and one of the waste products of this process is methane, which is released into the atmosphere.

While there is no denying cattle produce up to 500 litres of methane a day, there is significant scientific effort under way with the aim of reducing these emissions, not least to increase food conversion efficiency as methane energy is currently lost from the production system.

Manipulation of the diet appears to be the factor most likely to reduce methane emissions from cattle and the system of grass fed beef may well be the solution.

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The role of the veterinary surgeon in reducing methane production is currently limited to a research role but, once conclusions have been reached we may be involved in actively reducing livestock methane production at farm level.

Vets are already involved in ensuring safe, healthy food production with the inception of new regulations concerning the use of critically important antibiotics in livestock production.

Such antibiotics have all but disappeared from the store room shelves in our surgeries as vets and farmers work together to reduce their use in food producing animals.

The rationale is that certain critically important antibiotics should be reserved for human use as widespread use in livestock may result in the bacteria they are used against becoming resistant to their affects.

Farmers are now expected to produce a written veterinary health plan in which their antibiotic use has been calculated.

Fortunately we have been writing veterinary health plans for our farmers since the 1990s so are pleased to see measurements in place to recognise the benefits of analysing farm performance.

What the future holds for the veterinary profession is unclear however I am sure we will adapt to the changes necessary to protect sustainable and safe food production.