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Beef Ranchers ‘Can Significantly Reduce Climate Impacts’

Carbon sequestration offers the best hope for mitigating the climate impacts of raising beef cattle, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The report (pdf) said that U.S. crop and grazing land could sequester about 15 percent of global warming emissions from the nation’s agriculture each year.

To encourage soil’s natural tendency to capture carbon dioxide, ranchers can add irrigation, enabling pastures to sequester an additional 0.1 Mg of carbon per hectare per year. Growing improved grass species can add 3 Mg of carbon per hectare per year.

The report also recommended that ranchers prevent overgrazing, increase pasture crop productivity with a mix of crops, and add adequate amounts of nutrients from manure, legume crops or fertilizers.

“There is a range of affordable ways beef producers, especially those who raise beef on pasture, can significantly reduce their impact by cutting emissions and capturing more carbon in soil,” UCS senior scientist and report author Doug Gurian-Sherman said.

Pasture beef cattle emit the three major heat-trapping gases – methane, nitrous oxide and CO2 – but the amount of CO2 is a small percentage of total U.S. global warming emissions, the report said.

Per ton, methane and nitrous oxide are much more damaging to the climate than CO2, the report said. Methane has 23 times the warming effect of CO2, and nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times worse.

The 35 million head of cattle the U.S. beef industry raises annually release more than 103 million metric tons of the CO2 equivalent of methane into the atmosphere. Crop and pasture sources of nitrogen — such as manure and fertilizer — generate 57 million metric tons of the CO2 equivalent of nitrous oxide.

The report found that improving cattle’s diet can reduce methane production of pasture-raised cattle by 15 to 30 percent. Gurian-Sherman examined dozens of peer-reviewed studies and found that cattle fed a mixture of high-quality grasses and legumes such as alfalfa produced less global warming emissions than animals fed on grasses alone.

“The Department of Agriculture has a role to play here, too,” Gurian-Sherman said. “It should sponsor more research to improve pasture crop quality and productivity, and provide incentives to help farmers adopt climate-friendly pasture practices.”

He said that beef contributes a much greater proportion of climate change emissions worldwide than it does in the United States, so adopting these approaches internationally would have a significant impact.

Picture credit: Ella Mullins

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5 thoughts on “Beef Ranchers ‘Can Significantly Reduce Climate Impacts’

  1. The idea of “planting” and “irrigating” pastures seems a little off base for the majority of “ranches” in the US. This sounds extremely expensive and preposterous to me. Ranches are not farms, and most rely on native range to support their cattle. Also, the idea of improving cattle’s diets from “grasses” to a diverse mix of forages is already being done. They are called feedlots and according to Dr. Jude Capper are an extremely efficient and environmentally sound way of cutting emissions and boosting sustainability. America’s Farmers and Ranchers are an extremely intelligent bunch of business people and know a great deal about the environment. Please let us continue to do our jobs without lobbying the government by telling them how we can do our job better.

  2. Come on people let’s use a little common sense. Grazing animals have been part of the natural ecosystem for millions of years. And as part of a natural cycle do not harm the local environment unless allowed to overgraze an area which is usually a management problem caused by man. Yes, cows produce methane but so do we and every other creature that consumes fiberous (includes vegetables) materials as food. Removing all the cattle on the planet would not reduce the amount of methane produced annually by any significant amount. Grasses and legumes would continue to grow upon our prairies producing fiberous material that if not eaten by grazing animals and broken down ( by bacteria in their stomachs which is the source of the methane cows fart) to produce a food product for man would simple be digested by bacteria in the natural decomposition process which would produce roughly the same amount of methane gas. The only way to reduce methane production would be to eliminate the growth of grasses and legumes which happen to be the main food supply for both man and animals on this planet. If you want to be concerned about methane then worry about the warming of the northern latitudes and the methane that is currently trapped in peat bogs around the world. This is methane currently sequestered but rising temperatures will allow bacteria to decompose the peat releasing huge amounts of methane that is not natural to our present climatic system. So sorry vegans but no net gain in terms of reducing methane is achieved from a vegetarian diet although I will concede we would probably be healthier by limiting our intake of red meat to grass fed animals and not the unnatural corn feed beef which is prevalent today.

  3. Feedlots are inefficient because of the high levels of fossil fuel required to supply the forage and grains.
    Feedlots are used because of the high level of marbling (fat deposition) in their muscles that consumers have been persuaded/conned is necessary for the taste of beef.
    We all should reduce our beef consumption to reduce the climate change effects of our excessive Western diets. We should also go back to range fed beef (for our reduced meat diet) which has slightly lower greenhouse and fossil fuel effects.
    Comparing cattle methane production and human methane production is wrong. Methane is produced by the fermentation of grasses in the first stomach (rumen) of cattle, by a range of microbes that we do not possess (nor do we have a rumen, nor do our lower gut bacteria match those of the ruminants). Cattle produce more methane than humans by orders of magnitude.
    Carbon sequestration by pasture management changes is very short term, because it is totally dependant on the farmer maintaining those same pasture management practices. Change them, and potentially all the “sequestered” carbon is back in the atmosphere in potentially very short time.
    The likely best long term Carbon sequestration option available to farmers is bio-char ploughed in whenever there is major pasture management. The biochar does not degrade with time, is good for soil structure and can be part of a syngas production process generating hydrogen for other energy processes

  4. As far as grazing animals are concerned, Larry is off-base.
    Ruminants have been around for millions of years. But in all that time, they have never even come close to the hundreds of millions, or even billions, of individual animals that mankind now foists onto the environment. The massive change in runimant numbers caused by man has direct consequences on the environment. Of that there can be no doubt.

    Whole forests have been, and are now being, cleared specifically for increased cattle farming. The lost forests no longer contribute to carbon or methane cycles. The pastureland that replaces them contributes in different ways. The overall change is for the worse, in terms of the tonnages of carbon and methane that reside in the atmosphere.

    And let’s not forget that, for every poiund of beef produced, many poiunds of corn and other foodstocks had to be fed to the cattle, over a mjulti-year period. That’s an additional huge environmental impact of beef consumption.

  5. The world is a great place, but it is falling apart and we all are responsable for this. Be responsable now and try to make it better.
    Biochar, one of the newest option can contribuate to atmospheric CO2 reduction. Find out more:
    http://www.biochar-books.com
    The Biochar Revolution is exactly what it says !

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