Are cattle a leading cause of climate change? Spoiler Alert: They aren't. But the people raising cattle do care a lot about our environmental impact. Allow us to expand on the science behind that while sharing more about how cattle ranchers are always looking to become more efficient and lower impact.
Home on the range...and in the pasture, and at the feedyard. Raising beef is a complex process, but throughout the entire journey, one thing remains constant – the shared commitment to raising cattle in a safe, humane and environmentally sustainable way.
Do frequent write ups in lifestyle magazines, and social media posts shared by friends have you thinking twice about your carbon foodprint? Before you cut meat from your diet, there's a lot of science to digest. So let's focus on the impact U.S. beef production has on climate change. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), beef cattle account for only 1.9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which is half of the total animal contributions (about 4%), while all of agriculture combined contributes about 9% of our domestic GHGs (pssst: GHG's are the culprit of climate change).
It's estimated that U.S. beef production has 10 to 50 times lower carbon footprint than many nations, meaning U.S. beef has the lowest carbon footprint in the world. This is because American beef farmers and ranchers have invested decades into becoming more productive and sustainable meat producers. The CLEAR Center at UC Davis breaks down the difference between the impact of methane from cattle as part of the biogenic carbon cycle versus novel CO2 from fossil fuels being introduced and how they actually impact global warming and climate change.
The Bottom Line: If everyone quit eating meat and using animal products all together, the U.S. would save 2.6% of GHG emissions, which is just .36% of global GHG. The risk for that reward? Increased use of synthetic fertilizers and a lack of nutrition for the people who need it most. Removing grazing cattle from the 770 million acres of un-farmable rangelands of the U.S. would increase fire danger and soil erosion. And potentially more plastics would be used in place of items commonly derived from the use of the entire animal. We've got more on both of those facts right here.
Regenerative Agriculture: a fancy term for making more out of a little and then doing it over and over again. Thanks to their ruminant digestive system, cattle upgrade plants of little-to-no nutritional value to humans, and turn it into high-quality protein. They can graze rocky, uneven rangelands that will never be farmable because they're too dry, too high, too steep, or too severe to grow anything more than what most crop farmers would call weeds. The standard practice here in the U.S. is that we do not convert timberlands or croplands to cattle-lands. Instead, in the case of mountain rangelands, cattle graze among the trees and clear undergrowth that can fuel wildfires.
In the case of croplands, they become dual-purpose when cattle come on to fields after harvesting crops like wheat and corn to graze on what is leftover. That means more food from the same amount of acres, thanks to cattle. While they graze, they deposit natural fertilizer that can improve next year's crop. They also eat forage crops like hay, which can grow in conditions that are too harsh and dry for growing vegetables and human-edible grains. By eating these plants cattle are a crucial part of the biogenic carbon cycle. Cattle step in again to make growing food for humans more efficient when they eat what's leftover from growing those crops, helping humans lower our carbon foodprint by reducing waste. True, cattle don't eat just grasses.
But wait for it: The corn and grains specifically grown to feed to cattle are produced on just 2 percent of the U.S.'s total cropland acres. Much of the corn fed to beef cattle is actually upcycled from the process of making ethanol fuel. In all, over 90 percent of the lifetime diet of grain-finished cattle is forage (grass and hay) and plant-based leftovers.
Cattle have a super power. It's called "upcycling," and cattle are uber good at it thanks to their multi-chambered stomach that can digest any plant to grow high quality beef. Beyond making the most of land that isn't suitable for growing crops by grazing it, cattle can also optimize what's left after we grow food crops for humans.
For example: A farmer grows sweet corn bound for the grocery store. After harvesting the ears of corn, the stalks are cut down and chopped up to become feed for cattle. Cattle can also come into that field and munch on the stubble, or stubs of stalks and other plants, left in the field. Any ears of corn that got bruised in the harvesting process, or don't look good enough for the grocery store are also fair game for cattle. This example explains that without cattle, there would be more single-purpose cropland, potential cattle feed left in the fields, resources like irrigation water that grew the plants not completely used, and food processing leftovers dumped into landfills. What a waste!
We invite you to meet a couple Washington ranchers that raise high quality beef and help make the most of the food grown right here. See how upcycling works in real life by visiting a few of the many Washington ranchers who can show and tell how it's done here locally and learn why their cattle are true locavores.
When we harvest a beef animal, about 60% of that animal becomes beef. The remaining 40% includes things like skin, fat, bones, tendons, organs, etc. But we can use those items in inventive and innovative ways to help make our lives easier. And this is why byproducts are especially important as beef processors set the goal of making full use of the animal, so nothing goes to waste.
An obvious byproduct is leather which comes from the cow’s hide. One cowhide can make 12 basketballs, or 144 baseballs, or 20 footballs, or 18 volleyballs, or 18 soccer balls, or 12 baseball gloves. Gelatin is another great example of a beef byproduct. It comes from connective tissue and is a staple ingredient in anything that jiggles or has that well known springy consistency. Hello Jell-o and gummy bears, marshmallows and gum.
But let's think outside the box, or outside the beef. Many important medical items also use part of a beef animal as essential ingredients: insulin, ointments for burns and first aid creams, and antirejection drugs used after organ transplants, even the sticky part on bandages. Other items which contain beef byproducts are laundry pre-treatment, dish soap, candles, film, crayons, paintbrushes, printing ink, nail polish remover, deodorants, antifreeze, hydraulic brake fluid, car wax, and even tires.
Everything on Earth requires the use of natural resources like land, energy and water—it’s what we do with those resources that is most important. Today, beef is produced using fewer resources than ever before. But conservation is never complete; farmers and ranchers will continue to work hard to feed a growing population, while, at the same time, working to reduce water use, care for the land, and protect the environment.
To the beef community, sustainability involves more than environmental considerations. A sustainable food supply balances efficient production with environmental, social and economic impacts with Beef Quality Assurance protocols.
Cattle ranchers have many tools to keep the animals in their care healthy and safe, including nutrition programs, veterinary care and good management practices that are science-based, regulated and, above all, good for the animal and the consumer.
Learn how beef promotes health and helps prevent nutrient deficiencies, and the ways in which cattle play a unique role in our food system by upcycling inedible plants to high-quality protein.