Sustainability expert provides insight into climate change and beef production | Ag / Energy
As conversations about climate change continue around the world, cattle ranchers may find themselves lost in an ocean of scientific jargon and finger-pointing, wondering how new science and technology fits into their operation.
Sara Place, technical sustainability consultant for Elanco, spoke with cattle producers about the specifics of sustainability and the potential to find more value in their herd, at the 2021 US CattleTrace Symposium in Wichita, Kan.
Sustainability is a multi-faceted issue dealing with the environment, the economy and social issues, Place said.
“The benefits of beef that we haven’t been able to market and communicate as well as we possibly could are from all the protein you can put on your plate, the beef is the one that brings with it, the wildlife habitat, biodiversity and all those other great things, ”Place said. “But we also have the economic problems. First of all, if you are not economically viable, you do not have a sustainable system.
Social issues are the most difficult element to balance because they are rooted in individual values, Place said.
“Everything from animal welfare to cultural perspectives on how we use animals and what we consume is all about sustainability,” Place said. “That’s why sometimes it’s such a difficult problem, because people can prioritize these things differently. “
Although the global climate has never been stable or static, Place said today’s climate change is different from past patterns.
“What I want you to know and understand about climate change, because I think sometimes it gets lost is not that we’re surprised that the climate is changing geologically,” Place said. . “The climate has always changed in different ways. What worries us is the rate of change.
Faster changes in climate can impact the ability of natural ecosystems and human life to adapt, Place said.
The greenhouse effect – when greenhouse gases trap heat from solar energy in the atmosphere – is necessary for life, so balancing human influence is essential.
“The global average temperature would be below the freezing point of water if we didn’t have the greenhouse effect,” Place said. “It would be hard to imagine all the abundance of life we have if we didn’t have this effect. To the right? What concerns us is how human influences increase the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere. “
One example is carbon dioxide, a product of the combustion of fossil fuels that is naturally synthesized by plants and the ocean, but continues to see a higher concentration in the atmosphere.
“The reality is I wouldn’t talk to you here today without fossil fuels and flying everywhere and the Internet and everything else we have,” Place said. “Modern civilization depends on abundant energy. So this is still the reality of this compromise.
The greenhouse gas of most concern for cattle producers is methane.
“When we think about how cattle fit into this whole cycle, basically what cattle do is take photosynthetic carbon that gets captured in plants and eat it,” Place said. “A small fraction, about 1% of the carbon they eat, is emitted as methane. Thus, it is temporarily transformed into a more powerful gas. And then it goes back to CO2 and the cycle repeats correctly. So why is this important? The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is actually what matters. We care about emissions because emissions influence concentration.
In the U.S. beef cattle industry, the main source of emissions is enteric methane, or methane from the animal’s gut, Place said.
“Most of this methane is actually found on the cow-calf side of the industry,” Place said. “There are more cattle and those cattle are getting a higher feed rate. It’s one of those things that sometimes people don’t realize. More forage and less digestible feed means more methane. More digestible foods, more fermentable carbohydrates, mean less methane. Basically, methane is a waste of food calories, isn’t it? So that’s always the point. Can you improve your efficiency at the same time with reduced methane emissions? “
With the NCBA’s goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2040, cattle producers may be wondering what will change within the industry.
“One of those things to be aware of with this discussion on methane, we need to be able to reduce per capita emissions in new and innovative ways to achieve this and maintain a vibrant industry that continues to grow,” said declared Place.
Place said some research in Ireland, the UK and New Zealand has shown that methane production can be an inherited trait.
“You can select animals to reduce methane emissions, so think about it from a practical standpoint,” Place said. “Most of the emissions happen when the cattle are grazing, so it will be very difficult to provide feed additives and things like that to the grazing cattle. But what if we could essentially shift the bell-shaped curve of the herd over time to reduce the animals emitting methane. It’s a way to get that reduction without adding a daily cost from a food additive standpoint, isn’t it? “
Other options such as food additives and vaccines are being explored, Place said. As technology advances, livestock traceability programs can provide opportunities for producers to get more value from their herd.
“Think about this from a potential future perspective. Where can we be in five years, in 10 years, if we had that kind of value chain information flow? Place said. “Can we get to a point where maybe a steer walks into a feedlot and it has a carbon score associated with it. This animal was raised on a ranch which sequestered X number of tons of carbon per acre. There were emissions, but it’s a net negative or very low-emission calf that we put into a system and we’re able to track that overall, across the system.
While the end goal will certainly require changes in the industry, Place believes that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a laudable effort for livestock producers.
“I think it’s certainly technically possible for the beef industry to achieve some of these goals that are out there,” Place said. “It’s not going to be easy. It will require further innovation and a change from the status quo. I don’t think we’ll accidentally fall into it. But at the same time, we cannot lose sight of all these other key aspects of sustainability and economic viability. We have to make sure that all of these things are in line with what we are doing and not lose sight of the enormous power that ruminants have in our food system.
Dinterman writes for Farm Talk, of Parsons, Kan.