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Livestock farming

In New Zealand farmed animals are the main source of greenhouse gases. For example, farmed animals generate about 90 percent of the total methane produced from natural sources in the Waikato region.

Photograph of cattle grazing. On this page: Livestock and greenhouse gases, Methane, Peat soils and carbon dioxide, Find out more.

Livestock and greenhouse gases

Globally, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil. But in New Zealand the main source comes from farmed animals.

Cattle, sheep and other domestic stock produced about 40 percent of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gases in 1998. The remaining 60 percent came from sources such as industry, transport and household emissions.

The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Livestock farming produces:

  • methane – produced when animals digest their food
  • nitrous oxide – produced when animal urine reacts with soil.

Methane and nitrous oxide are potent greenhouse gases and are likely to have an effect on climate change.


An assessment of natural sources of methane in the Waikato region in 1998 found that about:

  • 90 percent was produced by farmed animals
  • 7 percent in total was produced by:
    • vegetation - native and exotic
    • land - including urban areas
    • waterways and coastal areas
  • 2 percent was produced by geothermal power stations and natural geothermal areas.

Methane and livestock

Methane is produced by ruminants, such as cattle, sheep, goats and deer. Ruminants rely on bacteria present in their rumen (first stomach) to digest their highly fibrous diet. Methane is a by-product of this kind of digestion.

Of the farmed ruminants, cattle generate the highest emissions of methane (CH4). Wild animals such as possums are likely to emit only a fraction of the total farmed animal emissions.

Methane and people

Human-made sources of methane include:

  • emissions of natural gas
  • decomposing waste in landfills
  • coal mining.

Peat soils and carbon dioxide

The Waikato region contains about 50 percent of New Zealand’s peatlands. Waikato peatlands cover approximately 94,000 ha and contain about 2,700 million cubic metres of peat.

Peat forms from the build up of partially rotted plant material in wet environments. This partly rotted material contains a large amount of carbon. It’s been estimated that Waikato peatlands contain about 76 million tonnes of carbon.

When peat is drained for development, the carbon in peat becomes exposed to air. The carbon is then able to bind with oxygen (O2) in the air to form carbon dioxide gas (CO2) (oxidation). It is estimated that developed peatland releases about 1.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year (in comparison, transportation produces around 2 million tonnes annually).

Find out more

Find out more about greenhouse gases and climate change.

Check out our information on greenhouse gases and climate change in our Waikato Regional Policy Statement.

Find out more about drainage, maintaining water quality, cultivation, managing pasture and fertiliser needs for peat by ordering a copy of 'For Peat’s Sake – good management practices for Waikato peat farmers'.