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The State of Beef: Much-maligned cattle now have chance to be part of climate solution
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The State of Beef: Much-maligned cattle now have chance to be part of climate solution

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ITHACA — In what’s been dubbed the “methane barn” at a University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural research center near here, sensitive electronic equipment monitors and logs the amount of gas belched out by a herd of yearling steers.

Yes, Andrea Watson and her fellow UNL scientists are studying cow burps. She has already heard all the jokes.

“My brother especially thinks it’s funny I had to get a Ph.D. to study cow manure and cow burps,” she said.

But this work is really quite serious. If it can help reduce the beef industry’s global environmental hoofprint, it could one day help save the planet. And in the process, it could also help preserve Nebraska’s biggest, most important agricultural sector.

Cattle and cattlemen, long villainized in the worldwide climate debate, now have a chance to be part of climate solutions.

As changing weather patterns and extreme weather events increasingly awaken the world to the need to confront global climate change, an urgent drive is on to slash the volume of Earth-warming carbon sent into the atmosphere each year. And in that focus on emissions, cattle are taking their share of heat.

UNL is among a number of universities around the world that have been studying methane from cattle and what can be done to make the industry more sustainable.

Consider that in a year, the average cow belches out 220 pounds of greenhouse gas. According to United Nations figures, if the world’s beef and dairy cattle were their own country, they would be the third-largest emitter, after only China and the United States.

Consider that the primary carbon emission from cattle is methane, a potent greenhouse gas that warms the climate 28 times more than carbon dioxide.

And consider that in addition to such direct emissions, the growing appetite for beef in developing countries is leading to the destruction of millions of acres of rainforests, depleting those vital ecosystems that pull tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

That’s why the World Resources Institute has suggested Americans should slash their beef consumption in half. Bill Gates earlier this year went further, suggesting wealthy countries like the United States should move to 100% synthetic beef to avoid a climate disaster.

“The real question is how the heck in the next 30 years do we avoid cooking the planet irretrievably,” said Tim Searchinger of the World Resources Institute.

Nebraska beef producers say such dietary shifts would amount to an economic disaster in this state, where cattle outnumber people more than 3-to-1 and beef production underpins the entire agricultural economy. In the climate debate, they believe beef has been getting a bum steer.

As the world drives to reduce emissions, beef producers say they’ve already been doing so. Due largely to gains in efficiency that were unrelated to the climate crisis, the U.S. beef industry is producing more food today than it was in 1975, but with 29% fewer cattle.

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UNL animal scientist Andrea Watson picks up a handful of feed with biochar in it at Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center, in Ithaca, Nebraska, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. Biochar has been shown to reduce methane emissions from cattle. 

“Trying to blame the cow industry for any of this is BS,” said Jay Wolf, an Albion, Nebraska, cattle rancher who definitely is familiar with real BS. “We have reduced the herd by one-third. When other sources reduce by one-third, come talk to me.”

Producers and some scientists also question whether assumptions used in warming calculations have overestimated beef’s contribution to climate change.

Nonetheless, looking forward, producers and climate scientists are finding some common ground when it comes to reducing methane emissions from cattle. In August, the nation’s largest and oldest producer organizations pledged to show climate neutrality by 2040, a goal that would require cuts to cattle methane emissions.

That’s where the young steers in UNL’s methane barn could come in. They are part of an experiment exploring whether feed additives can reduce the amount of methane cattle burp out. Such experiments elsewhere have shown that significant reductions are within reach.

Climate scientists say what’s most exciting about cutting cattle emissions is that due to the unique properties of methane — not only its super warming power, but also the fact the gas is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere — there is potential to produce fast and immediate climate impact.

Climate experts are increasingly recognizing that in the decades-long battle ahead, reducing methane emissions from all sources is crucial to helping the planet buy time and avoid catastrophe. Cattle can play a big role in that, said Joe Rudek, lead senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Methane’s impacts are higher, but it also means reductions are more significant,” he said. “We can really slow the rate of warming over the next couple of decades if we really get on top of methane quickly.”

So often, the cattle industry has been portrayed as a climate change liability, said Frank Mitloehner, a professor of agriculture and air quality at the University of California-Davis. He said cattlemen can change that if they embrace the climate change opportunity before them.

“Methane mitigation is powerful, and that’s what makes our livestock sector so important in this discussion,” said Mitloehner. “We have an opportunity in animal agriculture to be part of the climate solution.”

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Nebraska’s vast grasslands are not as sexy as a tropical rainforest. But when rancher Mark Goes looks over the vast, verdant rangelands that make up 46% of Nebraska’s land area, he sees an environmental wonder.

Those grassy hills that were once home to millions of nomadic bison capture and sequester tons of carbon from the air. For centuries, the bison’s grazing, pawing of the Earth and waste helped promote new grass growth and keep the land healthy.

Goes now sees the bison's natural role being served by cattle, who provide the added benefit of turning grass that’s inedible to humans into tasty, nutrient-rich food for the world. Those cattle also sustain a livelihood for nearly 30,000 Nebraska farm and ranch families.

“It’s a tremendous ecosystem that’s right in our backyard, but we tend to drive right by because it’s a little boring,” said Goes, the fourth generation of his family to run cattle in the craggy creek bottoms near Odell in southeast Nebraska.

But the Nebraska ecosystem that has been ideal for raising cattle — and the massive $10 billion-plus state industry that has sprung up around it — now faces the reality of a changing climate.

Climate scientists say the enormous amounts of heat-trapping carbon sent into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution have permanently altered the climate in Nebraska.

The average temperature in the state is already up 1.6 degrees since 1895, with the rate of warming growth doubling in the last 30 years. At that pace, scientists project there’s a real chance, absent emissions reductions, that the Great Plains will average 5 degrees warmer by midcentury, and 9 degrees warmer by the end of the century.

The state is already seeing impact in the form of more extreme weather. Wild temperature swings. More days topping 100 degrees. More intense and extended dry spells. And unprecedented rain events and flooding.

Just over the past decade, Nebraska has been whipsawed by the hottest, driest year on record in 2012 along with major flooding in 2011 and 2019.

Talking about climate change can be difficult in cattle country. Things can get political fast, with many people unconvinced that man is playing a role in climate change.

“There’s a lot of skepticism,” said one Sandhills rancher who believes human activities are altering the climate but didn’t want to be named for fear of upsetting neighbors.

But the most recent rural poll by UNL also found growing acceptance among rural Nebraskans that climate change is happening (73%), that human activity is contributing to it (54%) and that action will need to be taken to deal with it (60%).

“Humans are part of the climate, so, yes, we are going to have an impact,” said Barb Cooksley, a Sandhills rancher who recently served on a national cattlemen’s sustainability task force.

Many producers say they have seen climate change with their own eyes.

One Sandhills rancher talked about how earlier generations had to put up a lot more hay to get cattle through winter than he does now. And since that epic 2012 drought, the Sandhills have seen so much water in recent years that roads have had to be raised in places because of rising lake levels.

For the beef industry, the changing climate may not be an existential threat. But it certainly could bring significant negative impacts.

Heat stresses cattle, hindering their weight gain, and in extreme cases it can lead to die-offs.

During the 1980s, two major heat events led to significant cattle losses in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas. The 1990s saw four such events. Now they happen about every other year, said Terry Mader, a retired UNL animal scientist.

“We can have a really cool wet May, maybe June, and then all of the sudden in a few days we are into really hot, humid conditions,” he said. “It can be much more difficult on the animal.”

Some producers say they’ve taken measures in recent years to help cattle remain cool, including providing confined cattle with sprinklers and shade.

Cold, wet weather also threatens animal health. And during extended drought, grassland and water resources also become limited and feed costs rise. That can force producers to sell off animals earlier, often at a loss.

“Our management level compared to 20 or 30 years ago is at a much higher level than what it was when these things started to show up more often,” Mader said. “As things change and move the needle, you have to move with them.”

But the heat the livestock industry is facing from climate change isn’t just kinetic. 

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Citing climate change and animal welfare concerns, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in February declared March 20 to be “MeatOut Day” —a way to encourage more people in his state to consider a plant-based diet.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts responded by declaring March 20 to be “Meat on the Menu Day” in Nebraska. He decried the efforts of “radical anti-agriculture activists” to besmudge one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat.

“That is a direct attack on our way of life here in Nebraska,” Ricketts declared.

The dueling proclamations from the neighboring governors became the latest example of how beef and meat consumption have become embroiled in the nation’s culture wars.

It largely started in 2006, when the food production arm of the United Nations came out with “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” a report spotlighting the global climate impact of meat production. Its headline takeaway: that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock globally exceeded that of the transportation industry.

That statement was later acknowledged by the report’s authors to be misleading, the result of an apples-and-oranges comparison of only direct emissions from transportation with “all-cycle” emissions from livestock — adding in related contributions like feed production, processing, transportation and refrigeration. 

But such claims were again amplified by the 2014 documentary “Cowspiracy,” which claimed livestock organizations had conspired with environmental groups to hide animal agriculture as the biggest warming source.

The UN came out with an updated report in 2013 that still pegged livestock with a sizable 14.5% of global emissions, with beef representing about 6%. The EPA calculates beef at 2% of direct U.S. emissions, though full-cycle emissions are just over 3%. For comparison, electricity and transportation make up more than half of U.S. emissions.

Assessing cattle’s contribution to climate change remains a subject of debate. To make comparisons across sectors, the more potent methane emissions must be converted into carbon dioxide equivalents. There are ongoing disagreements over how best to do that, with some competing models suggesting a lower cattle impact.

One reason U.S. cattle emissions are so much lower than those globally is because American producers are indeed more efficient at turning cattle into food.

Through artificial insemination, almost every U.S. beef cow bears a calf every year. And better breeding and feeding, including finishing on corn in feedlots, make for bigger cattle that get to market faster. The United States produces roughly twice as much beef per animal as the global average.

But beef globally is also creating land use concerns, as beef is far more land- and resource-intensive than other types of foods. Beef cattle require 20 times more land area and produce 20 times more emissions per gram of protein than beans, and 10 times more than chicken.

Each year, millions of acres of rainforest in Latin America and parts of Asia are being destroyed to make way for expanded livestock production. The loss of those crucial carbon sinks account for about one-tenth of the UN’s calculated global climate footprint for livestock.

“I have seen it with my own eyes, how these natural forests go up in flames to make space for soy or beef production,” Mitloehner said of a recent trip to Paraguay. “It is a serious topic that needs to be addressed.”

Even accounting for the fact that the vast majority of the arid rangeland where most livestock are raised could not be used for other types of food production, it appears the U.S. could still produce more total food if all plantable acres devoted to livestock were instead converted to crops for human consumption.

A 2017 study by U.S. agricultural scientists found that without animal agriculture, the country would produce 23% more food with 28% lower emissions. However, it also found the resulting diet would not meet nutritional requirements, particularly for important amino and fatty acids.

Based on such studies, some animal welfare organizations have seized on climate change to urge people to switch to a vegan diet.

However, the World Resources Institute, which has devoted considerable study to the monumental challenge of feeding a growing world population by 2050 without climate catastrophe, has not gone nearly that far.

Searchinger, a director in WRI's food program, said the reality is that beef will remain part of the world’s diet. And its production also provides the livelihood for millions of people around the globe.

But in an effort to reduce emissions while feeding the world, WRI has called on Americans to reduce their beef consumption, essentially from the equivalent of three hamburgers a week to 1½.

Cows, methane and global warming: oh my!

Though farmers and ranchers naturally react negatively to such talk, Searchinger said he doesn’t think Nebraska’s beef producers should take it as a shot over the bow.

“What do we want Nebraska beef producers to do? The short answer is, produce beef,” he said.

The world needs American producers to continue to efficiently produce beef. And it needs other producers around the world to be as efficient as U.S. producers.

It’s just that in WRI’s vision, if Americans ate less, more U.S. beef could be exported to countries where beef consumption is on the rise and woodlands are being destroyed. Americans already consume three times more beef than the global average, more than is needed to meet nutritional requirements and more than many studies suggest is healthy.

“If everyone in the world ate the American diet, we’d need another planet,” Searchinger said. “If we consume less, our beef could feed more people around the world and save land. That's got to be the case.”

The beef industry has pushed back against such talk, noting the efficiency gains of the past half century they say have already lowered emissions per pound of beef.

Goes said he considers it a denial of freedom for anyone to tell others to eat fewer steaks. Mitloehner, the Cal-Davis scientist, also does not believe U.S. beef consumers need to cut back.

But Goes said he’s glad Searchinger recognizes beef's vital role in feeding the world. And he also agrees the industry should act to reduce emissions.

Goes and Cooksley both served this year on a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association task force that studied issues of sustainability. In the end, the association in August endorsed the task force’s recommendation that the industry seek to “demonstrate climate neutrality” by 2040.

The NCBA believes current methods of calculating cattle’s warming footprint overestimate methane’s impact, and also fail to take into account enhanced carbon capture due to grazing.

But Jason Sawyer, a cattle research scientist at Texas A&M University-Kingsville who served as a consultant to the task force, said meeting the 2040 pledge will still require reductions in methane from cattle. Also part of the goal is new management practices to further enhance carbon capture in pastures.

“We can’t continue to do things the way we've always done them,” Goes said. “If we adopt new technologies and new methods of production, we can handle this thing and we can move forward in a positive manner.”

Just how could such emission reductions be accomplished? The key to that is understanding the science of the interplay among cattle, carbon and the atmosphere.

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In a field at the UNL research center near Ithaca, less than an hour’s drive from Omaha, grazing young steers wear fluorescent yellow boxes around their necks containing GPS trackers.

The trackers tell UNL scientists how far away the cattle are from a sort of weather station, called an eddy covariance flux tower, that sits in the middle of the pasture.

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UNL animal scientist Andrea Watson looks at the Eddy Covariance Tower, which measures the methane and CO2 fluxes in the pasture system, at Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center, in Ithaca, Nebraska, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.

The tower’s sensors are able to detect the amount of methane burped out from the cattle and other gases they emit, as well as the methane coming from decomposing manure.

But the tower also is measuring the amount of carbon dioxide being pulled out of the air by the bromegrass the cattle are munching on.

In effect, the experiment is measuring the way carbon cycles in beef, from atmosphere to plant to cow and back into the air. And by tweaking that cycle, scientists believe it will be possible to not only reduce the amount of methane coming from cows, but to actually thin the blanket of planet-warming methane that surrounds the Earth.

The methane that cattle emit is part of what’s called the biogenic carbon cycle. It starts when grass and other plants through photosynthesis pull carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. The carbon is then stored in the plant as cellulose.

Cattle, who like fellow ruminants sheep, goats and deer are uniquely able to digest cellulose, eat the grass. They then belch some of the carbon back out in the form of methane, CH4.

Methane’s unique molecular shape is what makes it especially good at trapping heat. But fortunately, the gas is also relatively short-lived.

Unlike CO2, which lasts in the atmosphere for centuries, methane exists only nine to 12 years. Then the gas breaks down into atmospheric CO2, where it can again be taken in by a photosynthesizing plant.

The atmospheric carbon from cattle is, in effect, recycled. Mitloehner said that makes it very different from carbon in fossil fuels, which is buried in the Earth for millions of years, burned and sent into the atmosphere — a one-way ticket to global warming.

That cycling doesn’t make cattle carbon benign, Mitloehner said, because the carbon still resides in the atmosphere for a decade as super-warming methane.

But he said the fact methane is both powerful and short-lived now creates an opportunity for cattle producers to help save the planet.

If the size of a cattle herd is kept constant, the amount of methane in the atmosphere from that herd also remains constant, as an equal amount of methane is both emitted from the cattle and destroyed in the atmosphere each year. EPA estimates suggest total annual methane emissions from the U.S. cattle herd indeed haven’t changed much since 1990, which would mean the methane from cattle in the atmosphere also hasn't changed in that time.

But if U.S. producers can now reduce the amount of methane the herd is emitting, the amount destroyed atmospherically each year would exceed what cattle emit.

In that scenario, the total amount of methane in the atmosphere from cattle would actually shrink. And since methane is a powerful warmer, reduced methane levels could just as powerfully slow warming, Mitloehner said.

"If it's being destroyed at a faster rate than it's emitted, you are actually helping cool the planet," said Al Rotz, a USDA scientist who also studies the cattle-carbon cycle.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Rudek agreed there is potentially a big upside in the climate fight if cattle emissions can be cut. 

“We generally appreciate the fact that (Mitloehner) is making the same case we are — that there is a big opportunity for the livestock industry to make a big contribution in reducing the rate of warming,” Rudek said.

Mitloehner, who is delivering a lecture at UNL Monday afternoon on beef sustainability, recently co-authored a paper laying out a path to climate neutrality for the beef industry.

If herds remain stable, cattle methane emissions are cut by a third, and other industry emission are also reduced, the paper suggests the resulting reduction in warming by 2050 would be enough to offset the impact of the industry’s remaining emissions. In Mitloehner’s view, that would make beef climate neutral.

The cattlemen used similar calculus in coming up with their 2040 climate neutrality pledge, Sawyer said.

Rudek and the World Resources Institute’s Searchinger said they’re not sure they accept such climate neutrality calculations, which are commonly made in many industries. But both applauded the beef industry’s stated interest in cutting methane.

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A steer taking part in the biochar experiment stands in a pen at Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center, in Ithaca, Nebraska, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.

"It’s good we can all agree that reducing methane matters," Searchinger said.

In North America, livestock are responsible for 28% of all methane emissions, with an additional 41% from the oil and gas industry (mostly through leaks) and 21% from landfills. In all, a hefty 25% of today's warming globally is driven by methane.

Rudek said if methane emissions across all industries worldwide can be cut by 30% by 2050, it would be enough to avoid a half degree of warming. That would make a huge difference for the planet, providing more time to deal with the longer-term gases like carbon dioxide.

“The path between here and there is very much decided by what we do with methane,” he said.

Reducing emissions in the beef industry won’t be easy. It will take innovation and a substantial departure from business as usual, Mitloehner said. But there is also promise.

“There’s a lot that can be done to reduce beef cattle’s footprint,” said UNL animal scientist Galen Erickson. “That is our goal.”

UNL is among a number of universities around the world that have been studying methane from cattle and what can be done to make the industry more sustainable.

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The blackened bits in the feed are biochar. Breeding or vaccinations could also one day reduce cattle emissions.

Included is research on feed additives that can reduce what cattle burp out. Some UNL cattle are being given an additive called biochar, a natural charcoal-like material.

Studies have shown both biochar and an organic compound called 3-NOP are effective in reducing cattle emissions. Vaccinations and breeding are also much-discussed as ways to one day cut such emissions.

For confined cattle, better manure management can reduce emissions. Mitloehner said California’s dairy industry has already cut manure emissions by 25% by capturing the methane and turning it into fuel.

UNL is also exploring how cattle grazing techniques can enhance carbon capture in soil and plants. Erickson said the research so far suggests there’s already more carbon sequestered than has been realized.

Mitloehner believes cattlemen will be able to reduce methane from cow burps by 30% over the next five years.

Given the history of conflict, it would certainly change the narrative for the world to see cattlemen working to do their part to cut greenhouse emissions.

Goes, the rancher from Odell, said that in the end, all producers have a strong interest in preserving the land and making sure the world remains healthy and bountiful for everyone.

“You will be hard pressed to find a producer out there that doesn't want to have that land turned over to the next generation,” he said. “We are all trying to work in sync with Mother Nature for the greater good.”

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