3 strategies to reduce cow herds’ environmental hoofprints

Cattlemen’s College: Practical ways to lower the emissions and boost the efficiency of your herd.

Jennifer M. Latzke, Editor

September 14, 2021

4 Min Read
Cows in field
ENVIRONMENTAL HOOFPRINTS: Experts at the 2021 Cattlemen’s College Aug. 9-10 presented strategies that cattle producers can implement to not only lower emissions from their cow herds, but also boost the efficiency and, therefore, profitability of their herds. Jennifer M. Latzke

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.

Weaning weights

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.

Feeding efficiency

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.


About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Feedstuffs is the news source for animal agriculture

You May Also Like