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STAFFORD: How do cattle really impact the environment?
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STAFFORD: How do cattle really impact the environment?

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Cattle Culpeper County (copy)

A young cow observes a visitor in Culpeper County on a recent morning. Cattle provide more benefits than harm to humans.

Finding the facts is challenging and takes time, something we are often short of. So we take the easy route—I get it.

In the world of science, decisions driven by reliable numbers will often turn out to be correct when compared to an opinion, an early lesson I learned from Farm Management Agents.

The publication Progressive Cattle offers in their October issue an article by Jaclyn Krymowski about cattle and climate. A graduate of Ohio State with a major in animal industries and minor in agriculture communications, her article, “Understanding Fact and Fiction on Beef and Climate Change,” is worth reading when seeking guidance on what to believe about this polarizing issue.

She found the book “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” by Henning Steinfeld used an apples and oranges approach in comparing livestock and transportation sectors. Economists tell us that methods used to reach conclusions must be the same, or adjust for differences to be comparable. Simply put, when the methods are different comparisons can mislead.

The big change in air quality and Green House Gases (GHG) in and around our cities over the last six months was obvious from images seen. What happened? —We traveled less and used less energy. This is a big hint in the expected difference in GHG emissions coming from transportation/energy sectors compared to beef cattle. Let us see how much.

Cattle release methane as a byproduct of digestion, they belch a lot to release this gas. It breaks down into carbon dioxide in the environment. According to the EPA, only about 2% of GHG emissions come from cattle, while transportation and electricity combined produce more than 55%. These numbers can change with improvements in efficiency.

American agriculture is constantly improving. Finished cattle today produce 50% more beef than in 1950 so it takes fewer of them if demand is the same. By weight beef cattle are more efficient. A fair comparison of GHG emissions to our food sectors would be in calories. Pounds of food, on the other hand, are not equal. A pound of lettuce and pound of beef have big differences in calorie content.

As for storing carbon, our grazing land is key. Long-term pastures build organic matter—high carbon component of soil and an important source of Nitrogen through decay. Beef cattle are reared on grass pastures. Cow herds and their calves and many yearlings graze for a living and eat hay when pasture runs out. Grazing more days is generally more profitable. Most grain used is saved for finishing to shorten this phase. Some cattle are finished on grass, but it takes longer—and time is a cost too.

Beef cattle of all kinds spend a majority of their time eating pasture using land and feed resources we can do little else with. Ruminant animals, including beef cattle, are a resource to support the human population through their unique digestion of low-quality forages grown on marginal land to produce high-quality human food.

The low-hanging fruit for changing climate is the place to start. Big change comes big numbers—these are not found in the cattle sector.

Carl C. Stafford is the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s senior agent in Culpeper County. Write him at

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