Charolais Cattle

As conversations surrounding climate change continue around the world, cattle producers may find themselves lost in sea of scientific jargon and finger pointing, wondering how new science and technology fit into their operation.

Sara Place, a technical consultant in sustainability for Elanco, spoke to cattle producers on the specifics of sustainability, and the potential to find more value in their herd, at the 2021 U.S. CattleTrace Symposium.

Sustainability is a multifaceted issue dealing with environment, economics and social issues, Place said.

“The benefits of beef that we haven't been able to market and communicate as well as we probably could is of all the proteins you can put on your plate, beef is the one that brings with it, wildlife habitat, bio diversity and all these other great things,” Place said. “But we also have the economic issues. First and foremost, if you're not economically viable, you don't have a sustainable system.”

Social issues are the most difficult piece to balance because they’re rooted in individual values, Place said.

“Everything from animal welfare to cultural views of how we use animals and what we consume is all wrapped up in sustainability,” Place said. “This is why it's such a tough issue at times because people may prioritize these things differently.”

While the global climate has never been stable or static, Place said the climate change today is different from past patterns.

“What I want you to know and understand about climate change, because I think sometimes it gets lost, is it’s not that we’re surprised the climate is changing from a geologic timescale perspective,” Place said. “The climate has always been changing in different ways. What we’re worried about it the rate of change.”

Faster changes in the climate may impact the ability of both 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 finding a balance in 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'd be hard to imagine all the abundance of life that we have if we didn't have this effect. Right? What we are concerned about is how human influences increase the concentration of those gases in the atmosphere.”

One example is carbon dioxide, a product of burning fossil fuels which is naturally synthesized by plants and the ocean but continues to see a higher concentration in the atmosphere.

 “The reality is, I would not be talking to you here right today without fossil fuels and flying all over the place and the internet and everything else that we have,” Place said. “Modern civilization depends on having abundant energy. So that's always the reality of that trade off.”

For cattle producers, the greenhouse gas of most concern is methane.

“When we think about how cattle fit in this whole cycle, basically what cattle are doing is taking photosynthetic carbon that is captured in plants and eating it,” Place said. “A small fraction, about 1% of the carbon, they eat gets admitted as methane. So, it's temporarily transformed into higher potency gas. And then it goes back to CO2 and the cycle repeats right. So why is that important? The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is actually what matters. We care about emissions because emissions influence the concentration.”

In the U.S. beef cattle industry, the dominant source of emissions come from enteric methane, or methane from the animal’s gut, Place said.

“Most of that methane actually is in the cow calf side of the industry,” Place said. “There's more cattle and those cattle get a higher forage diet. That’s one of those things that sometimes people fail to realize. More forage and less digestible little feed mean more methane. More digestible feed, more fermentable carbohydrates, mean less methane. Basically, methane is a loss of feed calories, right? So that's always the interest there. Can you improve your efficiency at the same time with lower methane emissions?”

With NCBA’s goal of reaching 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 of methane, we have to be able to lower emissions per head in new and innovative ways to achieve this and maintain a vibrant industry that's still growing,” Place said.

Place said some research in Ireland, the United Kingdom and New Zealand has shown methane production may be a heritable trait.

“You can select animals for lower methane emissions, so think about that from a standpoint of the practicality,” Place said. “Most of the emissions are happening when cattle are grazing, so it's going to be really hard to deliver feed additives and things like that to grazing cattle. But what if we can essentially shift the bell-shaped curve of the herd over time to lower methane emitting animals. That’s a way to actually achieve that reduction without adding a daily cost from a feed additive perspective, right?”

Other options like feed additives and vaccines are being researched, Place said. As technology advances, cattle tracing programs may present opportunities for producers to derive 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 comes into a feed yard and it has a carbon score associated with it. This animal was raised on a ranch that sequestered X number of tons of carbon per acre. It had emissions, but it's a net negative or a very low emitting calf we’re bringing into a system and we’re able to actually track that through the whole, through the whole system.”

While the end goal will certainly require changes in the industry, Place believes lower greenhouse gas emissions is a worthwhile endeavor for cattle producers.

“I think it's definitely 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 new innovation and change from the status quo. I don't think we'll just accidentally fall into to it. But at the same time, we can't lose sight of all those other key aspects of sustainability and economic viability. We have to make sure that all these things are in concert with what we're doing and not lose sight of the huge power that the ruminant animal has within our food system.”

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