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Three ways livestock farming is becoming more sustainable

UPDATE: For new data on the contributions of animal health to livestock sustainability, view the new publication, “Animal Health and Sustainability: A Global Data Analysis.

The farming sector is facing a challenge. By 2030, the number of people within the global middle class is expected to grow to five billion and by 2050, 10 billion people will live on our planet. Farmers will need to supply more milk, meat, fish and eggs than ever before, while using fewer resources.

But farms are stepping up to the challenge by adopting practices that can make production more efficient. Here’s three that are having success already:

1. Good animal health = lower emissions

Maintaining good animal health is clearly important: healthy animals produce more and live better lives. They make the production process much more efficient and profitable for the farmer.

But one aspect that may not be so obvious, is that good animal husbandry practices also reduce the impact on the environment. In fact, in 2013 FAO outlined that emissions from livestock could be reduced by 30%, in part by adopting existing best practices in health and husbandry. 

Poor animal health, lacking welfare and mismanagement of livestock means animals are more susceptible to disease and may die before they reach lactation, reach an age ready to breed or for slaughter. By overseeing good animal health it reduces the number of unproductive animals that emit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

A study in Scotland, where ruminants are responsible for approximately 50% of GHG emissions, found that better treatment of key diseases in cows and sheep could create significant savings. For example, in beef cattle, the disease Neosporosis impacts birth rate, pushing GHG emissions higher. Researchers found better disease management could create emission savings of 4.5%, significant for one of the biggest producers of GHG emissions in Scotland. 

2. Changing the nutrition mix

Nutrition is critical in the fight to save emissions produced by livestock. Good overall nutrition on the farm boosts the animals’ natural immune systems, helping to keep them at their optimum health. This helps animals produce more, which enables farmers to meet local demand with fewer animals, thereby lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists have found that changing the makeup of animal feed can cut the levels of methane and nitrogen gas produced which contribute to global warming.

For example, a study on cattle feed assessed the impact of different fats on methane production. Tallow, sunflower oil and whole sunflower seeds were added to the diet of Angus heifers. Results found each animal produced around 14% less methane when diets contained tallow or sunflower oil and 33% less methane was emitted when diets contained sunflower seeds. Offering an effective way for some farms to cut emissions.

Adding food by-products to animal feed, such as sugar beet molasses, has also been proven to help cut emissions. This is because it relies less on energy intensive grain crops.  

3. New products to target methane reduction

Innovation within supplements and vaccines is helping to cut emissions by targeting the production of methane within the digestion process. 

In ruminants, methane is produced by fermentation one of the four stomach  chambers called the rumen during the digestion process. Supplements have been developed that reduce the amount of methane produced. They work by blocking an enzyme which triggers microbes in the gut to create the methane. One such supplement, 3-NOP, was found to reduce methane production in dairy cows by up to 30%.

In New Zealand, scientists have been working on a vaccine that works in a similar way. The vaccine targets the methanogens, the gut bacteria that produce the methane. The vaccine activtes the animals immune system which renders the methanogens unresponsive. They simply pass through the stomach.

It is a combination of industry innovation, good animal health and welfare, which will ensure more efficient farming practices and therefore increasingly sustainable livestock.


Find out how a farmer, a veterinarian and a scientist are doing their bit to improve livestock efficiency.