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Is a home on the range the best way to reduce beef’s carbon footprint?

December 1, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
When it comes to global greenhouse gas emissions, livestock are one of the worst offenders. The cattle industry is trying to get a grip on how to reduce its carbon footprint, and some believe that getting animals away from feedlots and back to pasture is the answer. Grant Gerlock of Harvest Public Media reports.

GWEN IFILL: While world leaders meet in Paris to try to agree on a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it turns out one culprit can be found in our food supply.

The United Nations says 14 percent of manmade greenhouse gas emissions come from raising livestock, including the fuel and fertilizer it takes to grow feed and the waste animals create themselves. But not all carbon footprints are created equal. Eight percent of all livestock emissions come from poultry; 9 percent come from pork; 40 percent come from beef cattle.

As Grant Gerlock at Harvest Public Media reports, ranchers and the farmers are looking at ways to reduce the beef and cattle industry’s impact on the climate.

GRANT GERLOCK, Harvest Public Media: Its breakfast time at the J&S Feedlot, where they’re serving up hay and corn to 4,000 hungry cattle.

JOAN RUSKAMP, J&S Feedlot: There’s an exact amount of pounds that each pen will receive. Younger cattle that are growing have more hay and less corn. Cattle that are finishing and putting on more muscle are getting more corn and less hay.

GRANT GERLOCK: In only six months’ time, they can pile on around 1,000 pounds of meat. Joan Ruskamp says the secret is their stomach.

JOAN RUSKAMP: So they’re eating all these things I don’t want to eat and they’re giving me a great burger, a great steak, a great roast to eat in the end.

GRANT GERLOCK: But the same cow stomach that turns corn into meat also has a troubling side effect. As they eat corn or grass, cattle regurgitate methane, a greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide. In fact, when it comes to global greenhouse gas emissions, cattle are one of the worst offenders.

THOMAS HERTEL, Purdue University: If you look globally and you just compare every sector, I’m talking electric utilities, steel, automobiles, beef, globally, beef is at the top, OK, the highest emissions per dollar of output, higher than electric utilities globally.

GRANT GERLOCK: The cattle industry is trying to get a grip on how to reduce that footprint. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson is the sustainability director for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

KIM STACKHOUSE-LAWSON, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association: Seventy percent of beef’s carbon footprint actually happens on the ranch at the cow/calf level.

GRANT GERLOCK: Stackhouse-Lawson says, in a way, the U.S. actually has a head-start over the rest of the world when it comes to controlling the carbon footprint of cattle, and that’s because U.S. feedlots are the most efficient at turning pounds of feed into pounds of beef.

KIM STACKHOUSE-LAWSON: Cattle have gotten bigger. That’s from genetic improvements, so we have been very focused on maximizing resource use.

GRANT GERLOCK: Go back 50 years to 1965. At that time, a steer went to slaughter weighing right about 1,000 pounds. Today, with better beef genetics and nutrition, that same animal weighs over 1,300 pounds.

With fewer cattle, the U.S. still produces 30 percent more beef. If the rest of the world was as efficient as the United States, it would go a long way in cutting global emissions from beef. But not every country can grow feed like the Midwest. And some believe the current system relies too much on fields of coy and soybeans that add to the environmental cost..

They want to move beef away from feedlots and row crops.

DEL FICKE, Rancher: We’re rewriting history. We want to change the way things are done. And we want to do it with a group of cattle that fit with our nature situation and for a lot of other people’s. Come on. Let’s go, girls.

GRANT GERLOCK: Del Ficke raises cattle in Southeastern Nebraska. They never go to a feedlot. Instead, they start and finish their lives feeding on pasture designed to grow on grass, not grain.

DEL FICKE: They’re engineered to do everything on forage like cows were intended.

GRANT GERLOCK: The switch to grass-fed beef was a huge change for Ficke. Until a couple years ago, he farmed 7,000 acres of corn and soybeans and fed cattle in a conventional feedlot. Now he’s down to around 500 acres, nearly all grass.

DEL FICKE: You can have more cows, more pounds and do it in a way that is better for the environment if you use the right genetics.

GRANT GERLOCK: Ficke says keeping cattle on grass takes crops like corn and soybeans out of the picture, along with the fuel and fertilizer needed to grow them. That cuts carbon emissions. Also, planting prairie where crops used to be pulls excess carbon out of the air and stores it in the soil.

DEL FICKE: This was all cropland. And this would be highly erodible land.

GRANT GERLOCK: Its true grass-fed cattle do a lot to save carbon. But strictly in terms of greenhouse emissions, they’re still at a disadvantage. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson says it’s because of efficiency.

At the feedlot, she says a calf is ready for slaughter by the time it’s 18 months old.

KIM STACKHOUSE-LAWSON: If we were grass-finishing an animal, they might be anywhere from you know 2 to 2.5 years old before they reach the same finished end point.

GRANT GERLOCK: Since grass-fed cattle have more time before slaughter, they typically have a larger footprint. But Stackhouse-Lawson says, at the same time, keeping cattle on pasture provides benefits for wildlife habitat and water.

KIM STACKHOUSE-LAWSON: A grass-finish system might have a smaller water footprint, because, oftentimes, irrigation is used to water crops. So, it’s a tradeoff, and it’s about balancing those tradeoffs.

GRANT GERLOCK: There are different ways to meet the growing appetite for beef in the U.S. and abroad, and they each have something to offer. Feedlots are efficient.

JOAN RUSKAMP: The whole reason I’m here doing this is to feed people.

GRANT GERLOCK: Grass is green.

DEL FICKE: Just let the cow be a cow.

GRANT GERLOCK: But that’s the challenge for the beef industry in a climate-conscious world, finding a way to meet that demand while keeping the carbon footprint of cattle in check.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Grant Gerlock in Lincoln, Nebraska.