Producers can reduce carbon hoofprint while boosting profitability

If you want to raise more environmentally friendly cows, there are several things you can do, say experts.

And make money from doing them.

Over the last 30 years, the beef sector has improved efficiency by 15 per cent, but it can still do more to reduce methane emissions, said John Basarab, senior research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

Many align with good production practices.

For example, higher-quality forages — that is, with high-soluble carbohydrates, higher protein levels and better overall quality — reduce methane emissions while boosting production efficiency.

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Similarly, genetic selection for feed efficiency in cattle also reduces greenhouse gases.

And open cows are as bad for the environment as they are for the bottom line.

“Every cow that you have on your farm needs to be producing something other than manure and methane,” said Basarab. “If you improve feed efficiency, you improve the carbon intensity of beef production. I think that with all these techniques and a concerted effort, you could probably reduce emissions from beef cattle production by about 30 to 50 per cent.”

The science director for the Beef Cattle Research Council takes the same view.

“If you’ve got a cow that’s open, well, ever since that cow’s last calf was born, it has been walking, consuming feed, producing manure and emitting greenhouse gases and not contributing to beef production,” said Reynold Bergen.

He also has working with your vet to improve herd health and feed testing on his list of environmental and profitability win wins.

“If we can improve animal health and reproductive health, that’s a big deal,” said Bergen. “Work with that vet to develop an appropriate herd health and vaccination program, to reduce calf death loss and improve reproductive performance. Simple things, like balancing your ration and testing your feed, will all contribute.”

Cattle producers should think of themselves as stewards of both the air and the land, he said.

“At the ranch, on the cow-calf end of things, it’s not really often thought of as the efficiency leader,” said Bergen. “But there are a lot of things that producers have done, and can do.”

And improving your grazing management is one of the best, he added.

Because plants pull carbon out of the air, improving pasture health automatically sequesters more of it.

“If you have healthier grass, it will be sequestering more carbon in the soil, because the roots are healthier,” he said. “We can extend grazing and bring cows to the forage instead of harvesting, and let the cows spread the manure instead of cleaning pens and hauling it out. The main savings there are equipment and fuel.

“Fuel is carbon — that’s carbon that is getting dug out of the ground and would have stayed sequestered if we hadn’t dug it out. Extended grazing is a really good way to reduce our emissions.”

About 6.5 per cent of the gross energy intake on a forage diet is lost as methane — most in the form of cow belches, said Basarab. (In a feedlot, only about 3.5 per cent of the gross energy intake is lost as methane.)

The feed additive 3-Nitrooxypropanol,(3-NOP) can reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent and it is used by producers in Brazil and the U.K. However, it is not yet available in Canada as it has not been approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Basarab has been conducting research in genetic selection to reduce methane production. Producers can also select for cows that emit less methane, but the process is slow and unless coupled with feed efficiency gains has no economic benefit.

But Bergen has a suggestion on that score — one that, once again, couples the environment and the bottom line.

“Crossbreeding sort of dropped off the radar a little bit,” he said. “Switching up the breed can improve reproductive improvement and health. Those are hard things to improve through genetic selection, but if you crossbreed, you can improve those overnight.”

And his final suggestion is don’t start cropping marginal land.

“If you cultivate grassland to grow crops, which are perceived to be more environmentally friendly, we’re losing 25 to 30 per cent of that carbon overnight,” said Bergen.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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