Sustainable Practices Can Transform Cattle Production Into a Force for Good

Sometimes, cattle production can get a bad rap, especially when it's done at scale. But a few key fixes can transform cattle production into a healthy, more environmentally friendly system that benefits everyone involved.

Food production comprises a huge slice of the global greenhouse gas pie. Despite centuries of efforts aimed at efficiency, the global food system is estimated to generate more than a third of global emissions.

However, not all calories are created equal; 14% of emissions from the food system come from agricultural products not used as food or feed (like cotton or rubber), and 29% of emissions come from plant-based foods raised for human consumption. The other 57% comes from the production of animal-based foods like beef and poultry, including growing crops to feed livestock and pastures for grazing.

So about two-thirds of the emissions from the human-oriented parts of our food system come from raising animals for human consumption. But think about this– do two-thirds of your calories come from animal products?

Unless you're a glutton for meat and dairy, the answer is almost certainly no. On average, about a third of a typical person's calories come from animal-based foods.

Diving further, not all animal-based calories are equal. Think about all the different animal-based foods you can buy at the grocery store, from eggs to milk to pork to chicken to beef. Each of these foods have stark differences in how much land and water they require plus how much greenhouse gas they generate.

As the World Resources Institute noted in an analysis of sustainable diets, many of those animal-based foods are somewhat more intensive to produce than plant-based equivalents but not excessively more. 

"Beef production requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of edible protein than common plant-based protein sources such as beans, peas, and lentils." statement by the World Resources Institute. 

Relative to other herbivores that humans consume, ruminants consume large quantities of calories while providing few calories for human consumption– making them inefficient sources of protein and calories in comparison. Ruminants are versatile eaters who can subsist on a wide range of plants and grains and transform them into high-quality meat and milk largely because of their rumens, which are specialized stomachs housing a variety of microorganisms that can help the animal break down nutrients from tough and fibrous material like grasses. This specialized digestive process demands that they consume a lot of food, which means ruminant animal production is often resource-intensive. 

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Climate Change Will Make It Harder To Raise Cattle

Beyond the resource-related challenges posed by cattle production, the climate crisis is making cattle production harder and will continue to do so. A warmer world will decrease yields of livestock feed, put livestock at greater risk of contracting zoonotic diseases, and directly harm livestock by way of heat stress and water availability.

According to the IPCC, by the end of the 21st century, extreme heat stress risk will increase for all livestock species in many regions of the world. As temperatures rise, animals eat 3 to 5% less per additional degree of warming, harming their productivity and fertility. Heat stress will particularly affect cattle in subtropical and tropical regions. In total, at just 2°C of warming, the global livestock population is projected to decrease by 7 to 10% by 2050. 

And the food these animals eat won't be spared either. Corn production may suffer by up to 2.3% per decade, while soy production may fall by up to 3.3% per decade. If the planet warms by 2.7°C, which is what current policy measures across the globe are projected to cause, cattle are estimated to consume 13% more water, which will conflict with direct human water use as water availability becomes less certain thanks to climate change.

So if climate change is making it harder to raise cattle and prioritizing locally raised, grass-fed beef hasn't yet made cattle production more sustainable, what will?

Thinking about the process of raising cattle holistically provides a few hopeful answers. It turns out that you don't need to drastically rethink how to raise cattle to drastically improve their ecological impact. 

While many believe mass production of beef is hard on the planet in the aggregate, the well-intended calls for everyone to eat less meat are not entirely grounded in reality. If done right, beef can be produced sustainably in a way that's ecologically beneficial and also favorable for everyone in the beef value chain. 

Reduce Enteric Methane Emissions With Food Supplements

As ruminant animals, cattle host a diverse microbial ecosystem in their digestive tracts. These microbes ferment a fiber-rich diet to produce energy. Some of these microbes produce hydrogen, which is sometimes used by other bacteria to produce methane. In fact, methane from enteric fermentation (i.e., methane from ruminants' digestive process) is a "substantial contributor to anthropogenic methane emissions'' in both the beef and dairy value chains. In the U.S., just over a quarter of total methane emissions come from enteric fermentation. 

A typical cow might belch out 220 pounds of methane each year, the greenhouse gas equivalent of burning over 900 gallons of gasoline, which for context, is a lot more than a typical car will burn each year. Fortunately, if their diets are supplemented with certain kinds of foods, cattle raisers can greatly cut how much methane cattle emit. 

In one case study conducted by the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis suggests that when dairy cows that ate feed supplemented with a type of red algae belched about half as much methane as those that didn't get the seaweed supplement. This could translate to beef cattle as well. As cattle have grazed on seaweed for millennia and have been intentionally fed seaweed as far back as 100 B.C., this research isn't as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance. 

A typical cow might belch out 220 pounds of methane each year, the greenhouse gas equivalent of burning over 900 gallons of gasoline, which for context, is a lot more than a typical car will burn each year.

California is counting on giving both dairy and beef cattle feed additives like seaweed to help the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 2013 levels by 2030. The California Air Resources Board released a report in March 2022 stating that the state's dairy industry may have to use a feed additive that reduces methane by at least 50 percent on at least 75 percent of its ruminant animals—about four million of them—in order to meet emissions goals. 

The use of feed additives isn't widespread yet, but scientists are studying a number of additive options, such as the inhibitor 3-nitrooxypropanol, which usually cuts methane emissions by about a quarter. Given the sheer scale of methane emissions that come from enteric fermentation, these developments are especially promising.

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Improved Feed Practices

In today's globalized food chain, ranchers often source grain feed from other farms. The grain used to feed cattle has plenty of room to be grown more sustainably. 

The use of cover crops - plants that are planted to cover the soil rather than to be harvested - can help manage soil erosion, increase soil organic matter and microbial activity, improve soil water retention (which helps build resilience to droughts and floods), and recycle nutrients while warding off weeds and pests and alleviating the need for pesticides. Cover crops can also extend the grazing season, just like AMP grazing.

Rotating grains like corn with other crops provides many of the same benefits while providing farmers with diversified revenue streams in the event of crop failures. Farms can also transition to perennial plants (which live more than two years) to protect soil health and improve climate resilience. Planting nitrogen-fixing crops like alfalfa and legumes further reduces the need for synthetic fertilizer application by boosting natural nitrogen fixation. 

Project Drawdown estimates that improved cattle feed can sequester 5 to 15 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050.

Rotational Grazing

When we think about where carbon is stored, soil often gets short shrift. It's the world's biggest carbon sink, sequestering more carbon than vegetation and the oceans.

Most beef cattle start their lives on a pasture. After about a year or a year and a half, they are either sold to a feedlot or left to continue grazing until slaughter. During the pasture stage, cattle are rotationally grazed to improve soil fertility and actually sequester carbon. Cattle can decimate plants and erode the soil by overgrazing a given plot of land. This inhibits grasslands' potential to store carbon. But it doesn't have to be this way. Cattle and land can exist in harmony.

To mitigate overgrazing, ranchers can switch to adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing. This involves a system of many smaller fenced areas that cattle are regularly moved between. Cattle usually graze each area for a period ranging from a few days to a few weeks, and each grazed area is then given a few months to a year to replenish before being grazed again.

This holistic grazing management mimics how wild herds of ruminant animals like elk and bison move across grasslands. As these animals graze, they leave behind dung, urine, and old plant matter. Their hooves and horns turn the soil, planting seeds and creating pockets of moisture that encourage growth. They then trample it all into the ground with their hooves and horns, planting seeds and creating pockets of moisture that allow organic material to decompose and regenerate the rich soil. 

Ruminants also shed hair that other animals like birds and small mammals then use to create nests, and they make small depressions in the soil that can collect water and support frogs and insects by creating miniature pond habitats. Native ruminants and grassland plants evolved together, so their natural relationship is symbiotic. 

By mimicking a natural ecological process, AMP grazing dramatically boosts plant growth and helps store carbon in the soil. Estimates vary as to just how valuable this grazing model can be in regard to carbon sequestration, but it is generally considered to help at least somewhat. One estimate even found that switching to multi-paddock grazing can lead to negative emissions - which implies that a ranch stores more carbon than the cows on it emit - for decades. 

Steve Polski, industry advisor for investors in the beef supply chain, insists that the symbiotic relationship between ruminant animals and grassland habitat that developed long before humans domesticated cattle counteracts the largely negative perception of cattle production.

"We need more ruminant animals than less. And the cattle industry isn't the cause of climate change. The cattle industry is an answer to climate change."

In an assessment done for White Oak Pastures in Georgia, which uses AMP grazing, environment consultants found that the ranch's beef was carbon-negative. Each kilogram of White Oak beef stored 3.5 kilograms of greenhouse gasses. In contrast, a kilogram of conventional beef produced 33 kilograms of emissions.

Rotational grazing methods like AMP aren't universally applicable. They require more land and more labor, so they may not work on every ranch. But if done right, the ecological benefits can be immense. Rotational grazing leads to better manure distribution, enriching the soil and helping grasses grow back after being grazed. It can reduce forage waste and fuel and machinery costs while leading to productivity gains for the ranch. Project Drawdown estimates that if managed grazing can be applied across the 1.3 billion hectares of the Earth's surface that it considers wet enough for this practice, it could sequester 14 to 21 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050.

There's another benefit to using cattle to enrich rather than deplete grasslands. In California, one study found that grasslands may be a more reliable carbon sink than forests because they're more resilient to the heat, drought, and fires that climate change is making more frequent and more severe. This might also be the case in other semi-arid climates around the world, underlying the potential to support global climate resilience with cattle production.

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Silvopasture

Silvopasture is an ancient integrated land practice that combines trees, forage, and livestock. It relies on well-understood ecological principles that are symbiotic. 

Silvopasture involves planting trees with a thin canopy layer, allowing for enough light to reach the ground to support the plants that animals can feed on. Just as trees provide seasonal benefits in urban environments (giving shade in summer while allowing for warming sunlight in winter), they can help cattle depending on the weather and the climate. Trees act as shelter, providing shade on warm days and acting as a windbreak on colder days. Combined with the nutritious forage that trees provide, silvopasture benefits cattle health, leading to better animal welfare and tastier meat.

Combined with the nutritious forage that trees provide, silvopasture benefits cattle health, leading to better animal welfare and tastier meat.

Silvopasture allows for trees to complement soil as ecological anchors. Falling leaves slowly add a steady source of organic matter to the soil while the trees themselves sequester carbon. Livestock and vegetation can work together to sequester carbon in trees and soil while relieving the need for synthetic fertilizers and giving farmers additional revenue streams from other foodstuffs or lumber.

As a carbon sink, silvopasture might be even more powerful than rotational grazing. Project Drawdown estimates that silvopasture can sequester 27 to 42 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050. It's costly and takes time to implement, but silvopasture can certainly contribute to a more sustainable beef production system.

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Better Manure Management

Cow manure contains lots of methane and nitrous oxide, both of which are harmful greenhouse gasses. Better manure management can reduce emissions of both pollutants. There are various simple ways to do this. One is to use animal waste as a source of nutrients for crops rather than synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, which cuts down on manufacturing and transportation emissions while keeping ranches more natural. Other ways to improve manure management include removing waste more frequently from the barn rather than letting it fester as well as covering the large containment tanks where semi-solid waste is held.

Technology can also help. Anaerobic (oxygen-free) digesters collect manure to produce biogas, which can then be burned to generate electricity. This can kill two birds with one stone. It cuts down on manure emissions while avoiding extra fossil fuel consumption. 

These digesters are costly and environmentally imperfect. They are most useful on larger dairy ranches, rather than beef cattle ranches, that often resort to letting manure decompose in oxygen-free (anaerobic) conditions, like a pit or lagoon, that can cause massive methane emissions. Nonetheless, as the underlying technology improves, anaerobic digesters may become more commercially viable on a bigger scale and help turn waste into value as we transition to a more sustainable, waste-free dairy cow production system.

Matching The Right Breed To The Right Geography

All cattle come from the same species: Bos taurus. But, like domesticated dogs, there are many different breeds of cattle. Some are better suited to certain geographies and climates than others. Thus, it's key to match the right breed of cattle to the right environment.

For example, the arid American Southwest is not a natural fit for large cow breeds like the famous Angus cattle, many of which come from wetter European climates with lush grass and abundant water. Researchers at the Jornada Experimental Range in New Mexico are analyzing if the Criollo breed, a smaller cow originally bred in Spain that has adapted to the American Southwest for hundreds of years, could be more widely raised there on the desert's prickly shrubs and grasses. 

As water shortages and desertification become more globally widespread, breeds like the Criollo could allow for less resource-intensive and more environmentally-friendly beef production in a warmer world. 

Cattle Production Can Bolster Climate Resilience

A holistic view of cattle production paints a different picture than what you might assume: cattle ranching can actually improve climate resilience. In Patagones, a semi-arid region of Argentina, many farmers are switching from growing cereal to fostering natural grazing pastures for livestock. The seeds disperse in the wind and are digested by animals, leading to greater climate resilience. Other areas have been seeded with perennial wheatgrass and interspersed with a nitrogen-fixing plant to remedy the soil degradation and erosion associated with popular annual crops like corn and wheat.

Plus, there's another way cattle can mitigate climate change through their grazing: wildfire mitigation. Across the American West, many invasive species of grasses feed the flames of raging wildfires. As wildfires become more frequent and intense in that region, cattle may be able to graze those invasive grasses, which could help mitigate wildfires. Keep in mind that many areas already employ goats - whose ruminant digestive system is similar to cattle - to graze in wildfire-prone areas, so it's not a stretch to imagine cattle playing a similar role on ranches and rangelands.

Conclusion

Industry Advisor, Steve Polski, is optimistic about the future of the beef industry supply chain. 

"I think there's a real opportunity to evolve production models with new technologies. And again, there isn't any one singular best way of doing things. We [at Live Better Beef] believe there are other production models that can complement [rather than replace] the current [model] in agriculture. We love the word optionality. The intention is to look at really distributing value in a supply chain based on risk and effort. I don't know if that's always done today. I think there's an opportunity for us to get better as an American food production system."

Cattle production doesn't have to be a drain on the environment. A few key fixes can transform cattle production from a drain on the environment to a sustainable, healthy system that benefits everyone involved. 

Business Takeaways:
  1. At just 2°C of warming, the global livestock population is projected to decrease by 7 to 10% by 2050. 
  2. In one experiment, dairy cows that ate feed supplemented with a type of red algae belched about half as much methane as those that didn't get the seaweed supplement.
  3. Rotational grazing and silvopasture are two examples of more sustainable cattle production models that benefit both people and the planet. 
  4. A holistic view of cattle production paints a different picture than what you might assume: cattle ranching can actually improve climate resilience.