Reducing your cow herd’s environmental “hoofprints” in the pasture can often lead to money savings and increased efficiencies for the producer.
This was the key takeaway from beef sustainability research headed up by National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and presented during a session at the 2021 Cattlemen’s College Aug. 9-10, in Nashville, Tenn. Overall, U.S. cattle producers are doing a better job at managing their cattle herds not only for economic sustainability, but also environmental sustainability.
Pasture to plate
A most recent environmental life cycle assessment (LCA) of the beef lifecycle — from pasture to the plate — showed that emissions attributed to cattle production, including the feed grown, and the fuel and electricity used, account for 3.7% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The LCA shows that the U.S. beef production system produces 18% of the world’s beef, with only 6% of the world’s cattle and the lowest carbon footprint of any country
Cattle are nature’s upcyclers, turning feed into protein for human consumption. The LCA showed the net protein contribution of cattle at each stage of the life cycle, showing that cattle provide three times as much protein for human consumption as other protein sources for humans.
Each point in the chain has room for environmental improvement, but the cow-calf sector accounts for 70% of the beef life cycle’s footprint according to Jessica Gilreath, postdoctoral research associate at Texas A&M University. She gave three strategies that came from the LCA for the cow-calf sector to not only save their money, but also save the environment.
Improved feed efficiencies
To measure beef cattle’s environmental impact, Gilreath says to take the cattle’s carbon emissions, divided by the carcass weight that is produced.
“There’s two ways we can reduce the numerator, or total emissions,” she says. “Or, we can increase production, which has been done and is continually being done.” Increasing the carcass weight produced is the more practical method, for cattle producers, she says — and so to get there, we need to first improve feed efficiency.
Managing pastures wisely, by using rotational grazing or other techniques with an eye to improving weaning weights is one such solution, Gilreath says. The key is to improve the pasture’s forage production while still using that resource to put pounds on a marketable calf.
The goal of a cow-calf producer is, of course, weaning a calf that will bring dollars per pound. The time a calf is grazing, though, is the period where it has the largest footprint on the environment. So, getting to a marketable weaning weight in a quick fashion, where you reduce the amount of time the calf is on grass, not only saves forage resources, but also increases environmental sustainability and can boost the producer’s economic sustainability too, according to Gilreath:
• Terminal cross. Using terminal crossbreeding strategies can increase weaning weights by 10%. At the same time, it can lead to a 6.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emission intensity.
• Weaning rate. Cattlemen can sell 2% more calves by using weaning strategies to get healthy calves to market and reduce loss.
• Early weaning. Weaning calves 2 months early can reduce their environmental impact in the pasture. This is especially critical during drought conditions, when cattle producers need to conserve pasture resources.
• Calf implants. Implants can increase weaning weights by 5%, further increasing the pounds produced versus the environmental impact.
Cow size and longevity
Reducing a cow’s body size can lead to a 6% reduction in greenhouse gas emission intensity, Gilreath showed. They also require 8% less fresh water than larger cows. Smaller cows that can produce heavier calves that survive to market are the goal.
“If we’re able to better match that cow with the environment, creating a cow that may be smaller may be better for the range-type operations,” she says. Larger cows consume a lot of forage to maintain their condition, and may not put that energy consumed completely into raising pounds on their calves.
The average cow longevity in the U.S. is six to nine years. There’s future work to be done looking at not only the age of cows, but also their reproductive efficiencies and how that relates to their environmental impact. It’s logical that anything cattle producers can do to reduce calf mortalities and increase the number of viable pregnancies in their cow herds will not only boost their returns, but also ensure that the resources used are being used to produce marketable calf weight.
Raising the feed to go into the beef chain is often pointed to by critics as a large environmental impact. Cattlemen can get a 10% increase in net energy use by improving feed efficiency, Gilreath says. That comes from not only nearly 7% less greenhouse gas emissions, but also 7% less fossil energy use and 6% less freshwater use.
That not only saves those crop inputs, but also boosts a cattleman’s return on feeding expensive grain and forage.
Other ways to mitigate include:
• Fiber digestibility. Increasing fiber digestion by 4% can lead to reduced methane emissions during the calf’s rumination.
• Irrigation. Reducing the water footprint of corn and corn byproducts by 10% can lead to greater environmental savings, as well as economic savings for the farmer and the cattle producer.