February 4, 2011
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has released “Raising the Steaks: Global Warming and Pasture-Raised Beef Production in the U.S.,” a report on reducing the climate impact of the U.S. beef industry. The UCS report focuses on pastured beef and makes recommendations for reducing the overall climate impact of pastured animals, first by reducing emissions of methane and nitrous oxide and then through more efficient use of pastureland for carbon sequestration.
Beef cattle and stored cattle manure are responsible for eighteen percent of US methane emissions, which has 23 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide emissions. Methane from beef cattle accounts for about 1.4 percent of combined US heat trapping emissions. In addition, beef cattle produce roughly 0.8 percent of U.S. global warming emissions in nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide. Although these are relatively small numbers, if beef producers in the U.S. adopt practices to mitigate climate impact, it may in turn lead to changes in other countries where emissions from beef production comprise a larger portion of overall emissions.
Most beef animals start on pasture or range, even if many are finished on grain in a feedlot. It is difficult to accurately compare animals grain finished animals to pasture finished animals. Differences in pasture and forage quality produce wide variations in feed-conversion efficiency, whereas standardized feeds for grain-finished animals finish animals at a more consistent rate. The climate impact of feedlots must also consider emissions from grain-growing operations for cattle feed. Pasture plants tend to be more efficient at carbon sequestration than feed crops such as corn.
UCS makes three major policy recommendations to assist beef producers in making more climate-friendly choices.
First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should increase research on global warming emissions from pastured beef, and develop practices to reduce emissions. This may include breeding of more nutritious and higher-yielding pasture plants, researching whole-farm systems to develop and identify the most effective combinations of climate-friendly practices, and improving nitrogen-use efficiency of pasture crops.
Second, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) should encourage best management practices to reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions and increase carbon sequestration, through incentive payments to producers that use best practices as well as through providing technical assistance and transitional support for beef producers moving from CAFO systems to pasture.
Finally, UCS recommends that state and federally funded university extension services advise and train beef producers in climate-friendly practices, from use of higher-quality, more nutritious forage, to strategies to avoid overgrazing.
To download the complete guide click here.