Dairy cow and cattle farms have been mistakenly blamed for a disproportionate amount of climate change given its production of methane and manure run-off. But let’s challenge this assumption by examining a few ways farmers manage their farms and ranches…
Did you know cattle can play a positive role in climate change, and farmers and ranchers are proactively working to reduce methane output? Here’s how!
1. Livestock is one of the best tools for land management
Ranchers whose cattle roam the land utilize regenerative agriculture. These animals graze on the grass – grass-fed – and while doing so, contribute to the nutrients in the soil. Livestock is used by ranchers to better manage the land, which then benefits not only the soil, but also native plants and wildlife. Healthy soil also absorbs the rainfall better and prevents water run-off into roads, streams, and wetlands.
2. Dairy cows & cattle can cut emissions
The Nature Conservancy highlighted a metanalysis titled, “Reducing Climate Impacts of Beef Production,” which showed that ranchers who own both grasslands and beef could cut emissions by 50%. This is especially true in the U.S. and Brazil.
How does this work? Well, when cattle graze, their hooves dig up the soil, where seeds then drop in from neighboring plants. Cow manure acts as the fertilizer, and the grasslands thrive because they’re a carbon sink. In Texas, one cattle rancher, Meredith Ellis, is sequestering 2,500 tons of carbon (after enteric emissions) a year. This is equal to taking 551 cars off the road.
On a global scale, the map below taken from Cusack et al’s study, Reducing Climate Impacts of Beef Production, exemplifies some of the many emission-reducing tools in the farmers and ranchers toolbelt being executed across the world. This includes production and transportation of fertilizers and feed, water use, animal maintenance, soil management, and machinery use.
3. Grass-fed vs. Feedlot
95% of all cattle start their lives on grass, then finish them in the feedlot. Many argue that feedlot cattle contribute to atmospheric methane more than grass-fed. However, it’s just the opposite. Grass-fed cattle emit approximately 20% more methane because it takes them about a year longer to reach market weight.
In addition, animal nutrition companies are researching ways to further reduce the release of methane anywhere from 3% to 50% through animal feed. Cows burp more when they eat roughage in grass versus a highly nutritious and tailored feedlot diet. When the roughage breaks down, methane is produced.
4. Dairy Digesters
The dairy industry has benefited from anaerobic methane digestors for quite some time now. How?
Dairy farms collect the manure and plow it into domed, rubber-lined ponds next to the barns. Each of these helps capture methane. The methane is then used as electricity for the farm or sold back onto the grid.
Farms that do this are GHG-negative because they use methane instead of fossil fuels to provide their electricity. California has committed to a 40% reduction of dairy methane emissions by 2030 just by using digesters.
5. Cows are actually carbon neutral
Contrary to popular belief, cows are carbon-neutral emitters.
This is because, over time, they do not emit more carbon than they eat. When cows eat plants, they consume carbohydrates, which contain carbon.
After the plant enters their stomach, they bring it back up to chew some more; then it goes back down into their stomach to be digested by the microbes, called methanogens.
This is when a portion is belched as methane and is released into the air. This methane is to blame because it’s 28 times more potent as a GHG than CO2. However, the good news is that it only lasts in the air for about eight to ten years. Then, it converts into one part CO2 and two parts H2O via hydroxyl oxidation.
The Bottom Line
Regenerative agriculture, carbon sequestration, reduced methane animal feed, dairy methane digesters, and steady cattle populations are five ways that cattle help, not hurt, the climate. So, continue to enjoy your steak and burgers!