Cattle and Greenhouse Gases: Fact, Fiction and the Industry

Published on Wed, 02/02/2022 - 1:17pm

Cattle and Greenhouse Gases: Fact, Fiction and the Industry.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

 A recurring subject in animal agriculture that is all too familiar is greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially methane and carbon dioxide (CO2). As irritating as the misinformation and ongoing conversations can be, this subject won’t go away any time soon.

Fortunately, cattle producers are in a unique situation to not only address the environmental situation, but actually improve it. The climate discussion also presents a unique opportunity about telling the beef story – sharing a common end goal with consumers and connecting on a topic many of them care deeply about.

To be successful here, the effort is twofold – sharing factual information about beef’s sustainability (including positives, negatives and opportunities) and expressing the importance of environmental stewardship throughout all stages of production.

Because ruminants rely on the process of fermentation to digest and utilize their feed materials, they naturally emit significant levels of GHG emissions. However, the impact this has on the environment has repeatedly been unjustly overblown by the mainstream media. Worse yet, the industry’s potential to enhance sustainability efforts are usually left out of the conversation entirely. But the industry, individual producers and companies, has the power to set the record straight, and that starts with understanding the facts, fiction and future.

Greenhouse gases
When looking at the overall picture of greenhouse gases, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, human activities are responsible for nearly all the increases over the last 150 years. Here in the U.S., our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is from burning fossil fuels for things like electricity, heat, and transportation.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ruminants are the primary source within the livestock sector. About 45% of emissions attributed to them is from daily production activities plus feed and processing, then another 39% from the fermentation process and 10% from manure.

Manure emissions are becoming easier to handle thanks to emerging technologies like enclosed storage and methane digesters. The latter is especially interesting as it turns manure into another useful byproduct besides traditional fertilizer – clean energy.

The more difficult issue to tackle is the emissions resulting from fermentation. This can be tweaked based on diet and genetics, but it is still inevitable. The FAO says about 44% of livestock emissions are methane and the rest is split almost evenly between CO2 and nitrous oxide. CO2 is currently an exceptionally hot discussion as there is more interest in incentive programs to offset carbon or utilize “carbon smart” production practices.

These examples represent only a small percentage of actual contribution, but there is room for improvement and better efficiency. Understanding the background of the discussion regarding beef production and GHG impact is important for having meaningful, positive discussions both within and outside the industry.

The role of cattle
According to the University of California-Davis, only four percent of all GHGs are due to ruminants. Regarding beef cattle specifically, that only makes up two percent. That’s a much smaller amount than what the general public would imagine, in no small part due to misinforming campaigns and poorly calculated figures.

Now on a global scale, the impact is a bit more significant. All livestock account for 14.5% of all GHGs, and of course decreasing that is a bit more challenging compared to other industries.

One of the easiest things we can control is, again, manure management. Right now, manure accounts for 12% of all GHGs produced according to the EPA’s statistics – but that is likely to continue decreasing as more advanced management and processing strategies are implemented.

The future impact
Agriculture, in general, has increased efficiency over the years especially when it comes to livestock. This is something to acknowledge and celebrate, especially when it comes to beef. And the best part is that we don’t plan to stop there.

Here are some fast facts at a glance from UC-Davis:
Through the increased efficiency thanks to breeding, genetics and nutrition, the 140 million head of cattle raised in the 1970s are now just 90 million head that produce the exact same or even more beef.

Good grazing techniques help manage pasture and promotes more prolific foliage growth thereby enhancing the natural environment and reducing feed costs.

Speaking of pasture, maintaining healthy root systems isn’t just only good for the plants. The more advanced root systems allows for more atmospheric carbon to be held in the soil.

Cattle are also world-class recyclers, consuming byproducts that would otherwise take up landfill space, decompose, and emit even more harmful emissions into the atmosphere.

One potential environmental adjustment for the cattle industry is the ongoing debate about feeding additives. Synthetic chemicals and compounds can and do reduce the efficiency of feed conversion and cut down on the amounts of gas released. This is certainly a solution to the tricky problem of emissions coming from fermentation.

However, this isn’t currently the most recommended practice, especially in light of the movement away from feeding antibiotics and growth promotants both in the industry and legally.

“There is potential for natural compounds and materials to reduce methane production in livestock, though these products have not been widely commercialized,” writes Mandy Curnow of Western Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development in her article Carbon farming: reducing methane emissions from cattle using feed additives. “Feeding one type of seaweed at three percent of the diet has resulted in up to 80% reduction in methane emissions from cattle.”

Curnow adds that, thus far, fats and oils are showing the most significant potential to reduce emissions (by 15-20%, according to some sources) in a practical and sustainable way.

The current reality
Agriculture as a whole is a small portion and contribution of GHGs, beef production even less so. But like all industries, the impact is inevitable and it continues to be an issue for consumers, the environment and even politicians. However, farmers and ranchers continue to be efficient in their management and continually level-up grazing and manure handling practices. With these efforts, the environmental footprint of beef is very likely to only grow smaller.

In the future, we can expect methane-reducing products and technologies to be part of beef-related innovation continually. Understanding this and communicating the facts effectively will constantly be in the industry’s favor. Of course, there is no way to take any environmental footprint to absolute zero, but doing humanly what is the best while not sacrificing on the integrity and efficiency of production must continually be part of beef’s future.