By Craig W. Anderson
Beef cattle and dairy cows have been condemned by radical environmentalists and other “woke” so-called experts because beef cattle and dairy cows are considered major drivers of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, primarily methane. But the facts say otherwise: cow and cattle burps – yes, actual ruminant burping – rather than releasing dangerous amounts of methane contribute only 5% of the nation’s methane.
It’s important to keep in mind that livestock-produced methane is different from CO2 in that: it stays in the atmosphere for about 12 years; it’s derived from atmospheric carbon such as CO2; it’s part of the biogenic carbon cycle; and it eventually returns to the atmosphere as CO2, making it recycled carbon.
California’s beef ranchers and dairy farmers face a challenge presented by the Legislature which passed a mandate that set a goal of reducing livestock emissions by 40% by 2030. Ranchers and dairy farmers went to work and, today their combined efforts have already cut 25% of the legislatively required 40%, far exceeding original expectations.
“There is a continuing push to reduce emissions,” said Jennifer Heguy, dairy advisor for the San Joaquin University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE)
“Dairy farmers, cattle ranchers and all farmers are stewards of the land and they’re obviously doing their best to help the land and environment.”
“I’m glad to see positives about cows that give us milk and cattle that give us beef and that they’re not the bad guys in our food chain or to our atmosphere,” said SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel. “If a positive adjustment to a segment of the cow population can be made, that’s good news.”
Feed additives for beef and dairy animals have been instituted to reduce methane-producing burps; Alternative Manure Management Programs (AMMP) help dispose of, modify and reclaim cow manure; and methods of using ponds to separate methane to be refined into a clean, affordable power source.
According to the U.S. Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emission report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, beef cattle produce 2.2% of America’s total greenhouse gas emissions; dairy cattle produce 1.2%.
In California, beef cattle and dairy cows each produce less than 1% of the state’s total GHG emissions.
The UC Davis CLEAR Center – the Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research Center – noted three important aspects that should be considered when considering the impact of GHG: Understanding important differences in how various GHGs impact climate change is critical as policymakers establish climate objectives and specific initiatives to achieve them; the amount of methane contributed by California milk production is less today than in 2008, which means more methane is being broken down in the atmosphere each year than is being created by dairy farms; at the current rate, methane reduction efforts will allow California’s dairy farms to offset any remaining [emissions] and reach climate neutrality…[in] the near future.
The dairy industry is on track to cut methane emissions by 75% and produce 6.7 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually-enough to power 757 homes for a year.
And better manure methane management can result in the nutrient being used to grow organic crops, increase soil carbon and produce clean biogas.
Hank Van Exel of Van Exel Dairy in Lodi said that if the dairy industry was allowed, it could have a huge positive impact by making clean natural gas via methane production.
Staying afloat during the pandemic wasn’t easy for beef cattle ranchers and dairy operations as, said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett, “Producers market disruptions caused significant downturn in prices. However, as we become more open economically with opened schools needing milk for lunch and restaurants serving customers in normal numbers, beef and milk sales will help revive the economy.”
Molly Watkins, cattle rancher and diversified farmer in Linden, said, “The cattle market is terrible because four packers in the country control the beef market and therefore prices. Those of us raising cattle aren’t receiving anything even approaching a fair price. Consumers are paying inflated prices for beef.”
The four meat packers arrangement “smacks of anti-trust, but they’ve not been caught at it,” Blodgett said. “What’s needed is more companies entering the market to provide competition.”
With the advances in methane management, regulations covering dairies and beef operations need to be reexamined and, if necessary, changed, said SJFB President David Strecker. “A great many family dairies have been bled out by restrictive regulations that allow the big outfits to survive.”
He said controlling cows is just the first step in an attack on agriculture as a whole.
In this mix of politics, regulations, methane, beef cattle and cows there are some startling developments that can positively affect the dairy industry. For example, feed additives to reduce enteric emissions – methane from cattle and other animal sources, not combustion engines – are working toward regulatory approval. The list includes synthetics, almond shells, garlic, lemongrass and seaweed.
According to a study co-authored by Ermias Kebreab, an animal science professor at UC Davis, adding just a small amount of seaweed to cattle feed can reduce methane output in cattle’s burps by 82%. “We have a billion cattle in the world, and if even a few of them get it, it will make a big difference,” Kebreab said.
What this ultimately means is that dairy farms and beef cattle do contribute to the world’s methane at a lower level today, which means that more methane is being broken down in the atmosphere each year than is being created by the state’s dairy farms and beef cattle, thus less warming is taking place.
“Methane’s always been an issue, always been a topic of controversy and it’s been associated negatively with cows and cattle when that’s not the case,” said SJBF Second Vice President Jake Samuel. “It’s easy to blame agriculture and cattle for climate problems when the animals actually contribute less than 1% of methane. Consumers need to be educated, getting the facts out to them is important.”