Ag Offers Answers to Climate Change

Some in Ag See Economic Opportunities in Climate-Change Mitigation

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Agriculture producers shared their success stories with federal lawmakers on Tuesday when it comes to sustainability on the farm. (Photo courtesy of USDA)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Environmentalists and some other groups often accuse agriculture producers of being part of the problem when it comes to climate change. But farmers and ranchers testifying before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday told senators they are trying to be part of the solution.

Weston, Nebraska, farmer Matt Rezac told the committee, although the industry isn't perfect, farmers are doing what they can to sustainably produce crops.

"I get frustrated about the misconception of farmers blindly dumping chemicals all over their farms, because it's just not the case," he said. "Not only do we care deeply for the health of our farms, in this farm economy you can't afford to be inefficient and waste inputs. I also know there is room for improvement. But farmers are often stubborn. Farmers tend to be followers, following what your dad did and often falling into the trap of, 'Well, that's how we've always done it.'"

Kansas rancher Debbie Lyons-Blythe said ranchers need to be credited for the work they do when it comes to climate-change mitigation.

Lyons-Blythe told the committee the industry continues to be concerned government regulation will make business challenging for farmers and ranchers.

"Climate-change policies that unfairly target cattle producers fail to recognize the positive role of cattle and beef in a healthy, sustainable food system and misguided policies can threaten the viability of our industry," she said.

"Threats from urban encroachment, natural disasters and government overreach impact our industry, too, and keep us from putting land stewardship into practice," Lyons-Blythe said. "Ranching has several positive effects beyond just the health of the soil and flora. Several species of wildlife, from large ungulates to small pollinators, benefit from the open spaces which working ranches provide."


The proposed Green New Deal has called for eliminating all emissions from cattle as part of a national strategy to control methane emissions.

Frank Mitloehner, professor in the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis, told the committee animal agriculture has been targeted for its greenhouse gas emissions but the data shows the livestock industry is a small emitter. He said all livestock production in the United States accounts for only about 3.9% of all GHG emissions.

Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the committee future climate-change mitigation strategies offer economic opportunities for agriculture.

Vilsack, the current president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Council, talked about Newtrient LLC, a company established by the 12 largest milk cooperatives.

The company, which includes nearly 20,000 dairy farmers, launched a new initiative called the Net Zero Project, Vilsack said. It is designed to find technology to achieve zero emissions and improve water quality in the industry.

Part of the project includes a demonstration farm initiative to identify a set of technologies and management practices that may be used by dairies across the country.

"The goal is not to find a single, transformational technology," Vilsack said. "The goal is to highlight entire suites of practices and technologies, which are available to and economically viable for farms of varying sizes and geographies."

Some solutions, he said, will be applicable only to small farms. Others will only be achievable with the scale of larger operations. Many will be size neutral, such as improved genetics or feed management.

"Our aspirational goal for net-zero emissions will not be achieved by every farm individually, but rather by the collective efforts of all farms, cooperatives and processors," Vilsack said.


Rezac, who operates a 2,500-acre corn and soybean farm that has been in the family for nearly 140 years, said he realized decades ago his farm will have to find ways of becoming more sustainable and profitable at the same time.

While no-till farming is popular as a way to conserve the soil, Rezac said those kinds of practices opened the door for his future.

"First thing I noticed was that we had a serious soil-compaction problem on the farm and that once we started really concentrating on the soil, we saw that soil come back to life," he said. "Instead of just treating the symptoms of poor soil health, we diagnosed the root cause and the world opened up."

Rezac's farm uses both variable-rate fertilizer technology and moisture probes to manage water. In addition, he said taking tissue samples throughout the growing season allows him to make nutrient adjustments in-season.

"Most people don't understand this, but giving a plant too much of a certain nutrient, such as nitrogen, is just as bad as giving it too little, and it just adds to waste," Rezac said.

"In today's farm economy, we aren't farming to rake in a profit. We're not making money, and we're farming to lose as little as possible. I know focusing on environmental stewardship also makes economic sense, when it's done right. I strongly believe that with the right policy and the right incentives, farmers can keep improving across the board."

Lyons-Blythe, who manages more than 5,000 acres of native grassland and crop ground as well as running 300 cows and calves and an additional 250 heifers in the Flint Hills of Kansas, said her operation uses a variety of technologies to improve efficiency and, as a result, mitigate environmental concerns.

That includes using genetic testing to enhance meat quality, feed efficiency and growth.

"Efficiency traits directly affect beef sustainability," Lyons-Blythe said. "An animal who will reach harvest faster and yet produce a high-quality meat product will impact the environment for a shorter period of time. Of course, not all ranchers have this technology available because of price and availability. But it is the responsibility of seedstock ranchers like me to provide the superior genetics that have been proven through technology. This technology allows us to produce the same amount of beef today that we were producing in the 1970s with 33% fewer animals."


Leading up to the hearing, the committee received a letter from the American Coalition for Ethanol, calling out the EPA for its handling of the science used in calculating corn ethanol's carbon footprint as well as the agency's issuance of small-refinery waivers to the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Discussion about agriculture's role in climate-change mitigation, said ACE CEO Brian Jennings, needs to include corn ethanol's role.

"Congressional action on climate could be viewed as a cost or a chance for new economic opportunities," Jennings said in the letter.

"As you know, U.S. farmers are already under tremendous financial stress. Net farm income is collapsing, expenses are on the rise, and bankruptcies are at the highest level in the last decade. Ongoing trade tensions resulting in lost markets and weather-related disasters are only adding insult to injury."

Jennings said EPA's "mismanagement" of the RFS has "undermined" ethanol demand.

"The economic stakes are high," he said. "Farmers are obviously concerned that climate policy could result in increased costs for fuel, fertilizer, and other inputs. But there is also opportunity. Congress could provide rural America with concrete benefits from climate-centered policies that outweigh potential negatives, such as recognizing the role agriculture can play to mitigate climate change and increasing the use of low-carbon fuels."

Jennings said corn ethanol could reduce emissions by 50% to 60% compared to gasoline.

"ACE believes unlocking the marketplace for low-carbon fuels creates the economic driver to help farmers adopt practices that maximize atmospheric carbon sequestration in soil," he said.

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Todd Neeley