Environmentally friendly beef production (really) | MSU Today

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Three hundred years ago, huge herds of bison, antelope and elk roamed North America, and the land was pristine and the water was clean.

However, today when cattle come together they are often presented as the poster animals of overgrazing, water pollution and an unsustainable industry. While some criticism is warranted, livestock production – even allowing herds to roam meadows and orchards – can be environmentally beneficial as well as sustainable.

In a study published in the journal Agriculture Systems, scientists at Michigan State University evaluated grass-fed adaptive multi-paddock operations, or AMPs, as well as grain-fed feedlot herds. .

“Globally, beef production can be taxing on the environment, leading to high greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation,” said Jason Rowntree, associate professor of animal science at MSU, who led the study. “Our four-year study suggests that AMP grazing can potentially offset greenhouse gas emissions, and the finishing phase of beef production could be a net carbon sink, with carbon levels staying in the green instead. than in the red. “

In addition to reviewing previous studies, Rowntree’s team conducted new research at MSU’s Lake Station AgBioResearch Center. (Feedlot data was collected in East Lansing on the ranching property south of MSU’s main campus.) Every day, the fields of Lake City see a herd of over 200 steers roaming 600 acres. of wavy grass.

Scientists compiled statistics from the finishing phase, such as carcass weight, daily weight gain and more, and compared them to the GHGs (methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide) from digestion and fermentation, manure storage and handling, feed production and energy consumption on the farm. . They also measured carbon losses resulting from soil erosion.

Environmentally, AMP systems came out in the green, while feedlot emissions were in the red mainly due to nitrogen emissions from fertilizers. However, beef production is a complex equation, which is not just related to environmental factors. For example, the feedlot model was considerably more productive, producing the same amount of beef on only half the land.

This leaves more land for various purposes such as growing human food or rewilding. It’s also important to note that carbon sequestration changes over time and researchers believe they see less over time. There is great potential for managed grazing to offset the methane produced for many years to come, Rowntree said.

“AMP is not as productive as feedlots, based on yields, but the AMP grazing system has produced significantly larger amounts of beef on a land basis compared to continuous grazing, which shows that better management can increase the production of grass-fed beef, ”he said. noted. “Ultimately, in a closed system, that means somewhat lower per capita beef consumption, but greater environmental benefits from what is consumed.”

Likewise, the same environmental benefits could be seen on the cow-calf system providing livestock for the feedlot, associating greater production per unit of land with the environmental benefits of grazing, he added.

Rowntree, who can talk about hex hatches and fly tying as easily as agricultural research, believes beef production and blue ribbon trout streams can coexist harmoniously. Lake City is within 50 miles of many of Michigan’s legendary streams, some of which are considered the best fishing spots in the Midwest. Rowntree’s research focuses on livestock but remains respectful of its impact on waterways and other natural environments.

“I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas and saw first-hand the damage nitrogen leaching, sedimentation and runoff can cause to fisheries,” Rowntree said. “We are not advocating one approach over another, but rather we have looked at different methods of livestock production, and we see best practices and areas for improvement that support environmental stewardship in systems fed with animals. grass and grain. “

In this vein, feedlot operations could be more environmentally friendly if they used less fertilizer and cover crops in the grain production component of their feed. By using AMP grazing, land managers can allow livestock to graze in an area of ​​relatively high density, such as migrating wild herds, but then allow adequate recovery of plants. This allows for a deeper, healthier root system and builds up organic matter in the soil, which acts as a sponge for available moisture.

Rowntree likes to say, “However, you have to get there, go ahead. Watching the Lake City herd graze in the bucolic setting and listening to Rowntree’s presentation, full of Texan accent, it seems that it is quite possible to achieve this ideal point of sustainable but optimal production.

MSU scientists Paige Stanley, David Beede and Michael Hamm were all part of the study. Marcia DeLonge of the Union of Concerned Scientists also contributed to this research.


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