Ag Policy Blog

ARS Looks at Beef and Cattle Emissions Data

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Back on that issue of beef and greenhouse gas emissions. USDA's Agricultural Research Service on Monday released "a fuller picture" on the environmental footprint of beef.

ARS led a team that completed a comprehensive life-cycle analysis on the emissions of beef cattle in the U.S. to establish baseline measures for the beef industry to reduce its footprint and improve sustainability.

"The environmental footprint of producing beef has long been debated. One challenge is that the impacts extend beyond just those associated with growing the animals and include the impact of producing feed and other inputs. This is further complicated by the diversity of ways that beef cattle are managed and fed," said Marlen Eve, ARS deputy administrator for natural resources and sustainable agricultural systems. "It is important to have an accurate quantification of these impacts to provide a baseline against which production system sustainability can be assessed and improved."

The analysis took five years and studied seven cattle-producing regions and reviewed information from 2,270 survey responses, as well as conducted site visits. ARS was helped by the University of Arkansas and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which partially funded the study.

The findings so far:

-Beef production accounts for about 3.3% of all U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. By comparison, transportation and electricity generation together accounted for 56% of emissions in 2016 and agriculture overall accounted for 9%.

-Fossil fuel and energy use in cattle production accounted for less than 1% of the U.S. total consumed nationally.

-Cattle ate 2.6 pounds of grain per pound of beef cut weight (butchered carcass weight), which is comparable to pork and poultry.

-beef operations in the Northwest and Southern Plains had the highest total of water use of the seven regions analyzed. Irrigated crops to produce feed for cattle accounted for 96% of total water use across the regions.

On the 3.3% emissions data, Alan Rotz, an ARS agricultural engineer and the lead researcher said, "We found that the greenhouse gas emissions in our analysis were not all that different from what other credible studies had shown and were not a significant contributor to long-term global warming."

Still, because the U.S. is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, it should be noted that 3.3% of U.S. emissions equates roughly to the total emissions of a country such as Vietnam or United Arab Emirates.

Two areas where there could be improvement in sustainability numbers include water use and reactive nitrogen losses. Water use is higher in the West where beef cattle are concentrated. Reactive nitrogen losses, accounting for 15% of U.S. total come mainly from ammonia that can lead to smog, acid rain and algal blooms, "and potentially pose a public healthy concern."

More information on the study can be found at:…

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