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Cow-Calf Phase Contributes Most Greenhouse Gases 

January 31, 2013
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Source: University of California-Davis

Scientists have long known that cattle produce carbon dioxide and methane throughout their lives, but a new study pinpoints the cow-calf stage as a major contributor of greenhouse gases during beef production.

In a new paper for the Journal of Animal Sciencescientists estimate greenhouse gas emissions from beef cattle during different stages of life. They show that, depending on which production system farmers used, beef production has a carbon footprint ranging from 10.7 to 22.6 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kg of hot carcass weight.

According to study co-author Frank Mitloehner, an associate professor in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis, one source of greenhouse gases was surprising.

"If you look at everything that contributes to greenhouse gases through the beef supply chain, then it is the cow-calf that produces the greatest greenhouse gases," Mitloehner said.

In the cow-calf phase, the cow gives birth and nurses the calf until the calf is six to 10 months old. During this time, the cow eats rough plants like hay and grasses. The methane-producing bacteria in the cow’s gut thrive on these plants.

"The more roughage is in the diet of the ruminant animal, the more methane is produced by the microbes in the gut of the ruminant, and methane comes out the front end," Mitloehner said.

In feedlots, by contrast, cattle eat mostly corn and grains, which the methane-producing bacteria cannot use as effectively.

Methane is one of the most important greenhouse gases. Methane has a greater capacity to trap heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

The beef industry has been paying close attention to greenhouse gas emissions in recent years.

"We are doing a lot to measure and mitigate our impact," said Chase Adams, director of communications for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

In a 2011 paper for the Journal of Animal Science, researcher Jude Capper showed that the beef industry today uses significantly less water and land than 30 years ago. The industry has also reduced its carbon footprint by 16.3 percent per billion kilograms of beef produced.

According to Mitloehner, beef producers can further reduce their carbon impact by using new technologies like growth promotants. However, consumers are often uncomfortable with these methods, and they choose organic beef or beef with reduced amounts of growth promotants.

"The technologies many consumers are critical of are those that help us receive the greatest environmental gains," Mitloehner said.

The study by Mitloehner and his colleagues is titled "Carbon footprint and ammonia emissions of California beef production systems." It can be read in full at journalofanimalscience.org.

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COMMENTS (3 Comments)

guidoLaMoto - chicago, IL
Time out. Get the science right: grass takes sunight, co2 & H2O and turns it into sugar. Cows eat the grass and turn it back into co2 & H20. Gut bacteria turn some of it into CH4, which is quickly turned back into CO2 in the atm. NO NET CHANGE IN CO2!..Only the burning of fossil fuels adds to co2 levels and that ain't very much.
5:37 PM Feb 1st
 
guidoLaMoto - chicago, IL
Time out. Get the science right: grass takes sunight, co2 & H2O and turns it into sugar. Cows eat the grass and turn it back into co2 & H20. Gut bacteria turn some of it into CH4, which is quickly turned back into CO2 in the atm. NO NET CHANGE IN CO2!..Only the burning of fossil fuels adds to co2 levels and that ain't very much.
5:37 PM Feb 1st
 
N242011 - Brookings, SD
First off I would to make it clear that I am definitely apparent of the green house gas emission problems and agree they need to be addressed. However I find it interesting to the consumers who demand grass fed beef and who are the same people that are leading proponents of the "going green" model. Furthermore I don't think consumers need to start reading and hearing that cattle are causing global warming or increasing greenhouse gasses and thus find a way to make it into a bigger matter than it is. It is important to note other factors such as fossil fuels, the largest contributors to the emmisions problem today and to realize that these need to be the main concern. Fossil fuel emmisions along with others, are due to human activity, meaning they can be controlled, everyone can reduce how much they drive, how they heat their house, and most importantly the resources to do so are available. I am not intending to make a statement that is defending the livestock industry but simply stating the bigger factors that need to be controlled first, all in which can be controlled with the resources we have today due to the mass amounts of money spent on research and development that will hopefully resolve the problems . We need beef to feed the world as well as all other livestock and grains, sadly enough I doubt cattle are ever going to meet tier 4 emission regulations. Today we are fortunate not only for the opportunities in agriculture but in America, and globally, thus my point of emphasis towards this article is that I agree emissions regulations need to be addressed, however I feel that consumers and media can take information such as this, unintended or not, and make it into a bigger matter than it is. A good example is the event of the swine flu and it"s negative effect on the swine industry. Certain cultures killed thousands of pigs, and consumer demands for pork products dropped without an educated understanding of the swine flu, and yet no one knows how there will be enough food in the future to feed the world. I applaud the researchers behind this matter because these are the type of people keeping the human population healthy and aware of its surrounding, however; I feel it also needs to be noted that some people could take this matter in the wrong direction and it could negatively impact not only the cattle industry, but the general public and its understanding of this matter.
11:15 AM Jan 31st
 



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