A NEW study aimed at bringing hard facts to the debate about livestock and climate change is to be led by Scottish scientists.

The goal is to develop accurate means of measuring the greenhouse gas emissions from cattle kept outdoors, filling in a scientific blank that has too often been filled by approximations and guesswork.

Scientists at Scotland’s Rural College have already done extensive studies into the emissions produced by cattle housed indoors, but the limitations of existing technology has so far provided relatively little data on the amount of methane produced by animals being reared outside on grass.

Now, with £250,000 of funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as part of a collaborative research project with European partners, SRUC has teamed up with the University of Strathclyde to develop and adapt existing precision livestock farming technology to both monitor and mitigate methane production on pasture.

This will include animal-mounted activity sensors and systems for monitoring location, feeding behaviour and weight, to use with cattle outdoors.

Around 90% of Scotland’s cattle are outdoors for significant parts of the year, and it is hoped that the 'GrASTech' project will ultimately identify the best options for managing grassland and grazing animals to reduce their methane emissions. Livestock methane is currently though to be responsible for around 5% of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions – and the government is targeting net-zero emissions by 2050.

But the project faces some technical challenges, including the miniaturisation of equipment, battery technology to permit long lifetime measurement periods, and data transmission and capture from remote grazing environments.

UK farming minister George Eustice said: “We are proud to be sponsoring this work by SRUC, which will bring forward new technologies to support farmers across all four corners of the UK rise to the challenge.”

SRUC's Professor Richard Dewhurst said: “One of the key approaches for reducing methane emissions is to increase the health, fertility and longevity of animals. By adapting technologies used to monitor and manage these things for housed cattle, we expect to deliver similar benefits for grazing cattle.”

Professor Craig Michie from the University of Strathclyde added: “Creating a battery powered methane sensing unit with the required performance for grazing cattle builds on our expertise both in advanced optical sensors for hostile environments and the pioneering innovation of neck-mounted collars that identify key conditions of individual animals. “

NFU Scotland vice president Martin Kennedy commented: “This is welcome investment in finding the facts on methane emissions. Whilst there will always be some form of emissions from agriculture and in this instance livestock, we also need to recognise that food production of any form contributes to GHG emissions.

“That said, the agriculture industry has shown that it will quickly embrace new technologies that have the ability to reduce its impact whilst at the same time improve efficiency and continue to deliver sustainable, high quality food production alongside caring for our environment. I look forward to seeing this project developing and feeding invaluable scientific evidence back into the debate around methane.”

The GrASTech project is due to run until September 2021.