Another study on emissions and meat production — but this one more in line with beliefs of the ag industry
March 8, 2014
In Other Beef News … We’re No. 1
Federal statistics say Nebraska has surpassed Texas in the number of cattle on feed in the state.
According to a number of reports last week, Texas lost its fictional crown as of Feb. 1 because the total in drought-ravaged Texas has dropped 7 percent over the past year, to 2.44 million head in feedlots with a capacity of at least 1,000 head. That compares unfavorably with Nebraska’s loss of less than a half a percent, to 2.46 million head.
Nebraska remains far behind in the total number of cattle with 6.5 million head, compared with 10.9 million in Texas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that, as of Feb. 1 nationally, there were 10.76 million head of cattle being fattened for slaughter, compared with 11.07 million a year ago.
Ag economists and other experts had been predicting Nebraska’s take over of Texas for the No. 1 spot for some time, following the Lone Star State’s bouts with drought in recent years.
A new scientific report on meat and emissions is a little more in line with the opinions of those in the agriculture industry.
The report, published recently in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," suggests that if livestock producers used their land more efficiently — such as feeding cattle more high-energy food and using less land for grazing — they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions more effectively than if consumers across the globe simply consumed less meat and milk.
The suggestions in the new report differ from another released in December, when a U.N. scientists' analysis took the contentious step of suggesting emissions be cut by pushing up the price of meat through a tax or emissions trading scheme. Before releasing that report, several high-profile figures, from the chief of the U.N.'s climate science panel to the economist Lord Stern, had already advocated eating less meat to reduce the production of global-warming gases from cattle, sheep and other livestock.
The U.N.'s suggestion of higher taxes on meat didn't find any support from the agriculture industry.
And it apparently hasn't found any support in Washington, according to ranchers, ag experts, officials in the ag industry and politicians who spoke with The Fence Post in recent weeks. All reported that the recent push from U.N. scientists for an additional tax on meat didn't appear to be picking up any steam in D.C.
That's brought relief to the ag industry — as does the more recent report that pushes for efficient practices, rather than another tax on meat.
While consumers eating less meat — perhaps by pricing it higher with a new tax — is considered by some to be an effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world, in developing countries, where food availability is more sensitive to fluctuations in food prices, removing meat from people's diets would lead to greater hunger and malnutrition, the new National Academy of Sciences study stated.
Like farmers and ranchers and others who've recently spoke with The Fence Post on the issue, the new study concluded that the best strategy to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming is for farmers to be more efficient with their use of land.
The new study added that farmers would profit more if they used less land to raise their cattle by feeding them both grass and a high-calorie feed instead of just grass. Also, the study noted, livestock produce more milk when they eat energy-rich diets that include grain supplements, meaning that more livestock can be raised on less land, with fewer emissions per pound of meat or milk that is produced, the study said.
Producers and ag officials throughout Colorado and the surrounding region have said there's more work to be done in addressing emissions from agriculture, but producers are already putting in place more environmentally friendly practices, like intensified rotational grazing and reduced-tillage farming, along with a number of other large- and small-scale efforts.
Industry experts stress that, in general, the U.S. beef industry is producing about 30 percent more beef, with 30 percent less resources than they were 30 years ago.
In addition to using more resource-efficient production methods, many in the ag industry stress that grazing livestock has helped shape and manage the countryside for hundreds of years, and livestock, through their grazing, bring significant environmental benefits that can mitigate the negative effect of emissions.
In an interview last month with The Fence Post, John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union said, "Having ag producers be a part of the conversation and the solution … and finding ways to get more resource-efficient practices in place is the way to go. To simply tax meat more and make prices higher so consumers buy less doesn't do anything. Taking away business doesn't help our nation's meat producers invest in the more efficient practices that are needed … and certainly doesn't help them in feeding a growing population."
Whether it's a new tax or using more resource-efficient production practices, all sides — farmers, ranchers, scientists, etc. — agree there's work that can be done.
According to reports, there are now 3.6 billion ruminants on the planet — mostly sheep, cattle and goats and, in much smaller numbers, buffalo — which is 50 percent more than half a century ago. Methane from their digestive systems is the single biggest human-related source of the greenhouse gas, which is more short-lived, but around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the planet.
All together, emissions from livestock account for 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gases, according to scientists. ❖