The truth behind livestock and climate change

The truth behind livestock and climate change

We’ve all heard that livestock play a role in climate change. Cattle, especially, are frequently singled out as a prime offender, emitting potent methane that contributes to global warming.

But what if we’ve all been thinking about livestock and climate change the wrong way?

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, livestock play a vital part in the story of our planet, and there’s no denying that animal agriculture has had an impact on the rise in global temperatures that’s been underway since the Industrial Revolution. But livestock are not the villains they’ve been portrayed to be, and they are not the largest source of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions contributing to climate change.

In fact, livestock and agriculture, when properly managed, have the potential to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. With the right management, methods and technology, they can even help in the fight against global warming. It all starts with knowing the facts — and learning about the possibilities.

How does livestock farming contribute to global warming?

 Livestock and agriculture are commonly cited among the most egregious offenders when it comes to greenhouse gases, with claims that emissions from livestock represent anywhere from 14% to 50% of total GHGs emitted into the atmosphere. Some groups even incorrectly claimed that meat production generates more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector.

But according to Dr. Frank Mitloehner, director of the CLEAR Center and a professor and air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, this figure needs clarification, and doesn’t reflect actual livestock emissions in developed countries like the United States, where the number is closer to just 4% of all U.S. emissions.

“Contrast that to the fossil fuel sector contributing to 80% of all greenhouse gases,” said Dr. Mitloehner.  

Many of the emissions from livestock come in the form of methane, which comes from both beef cattle and dairy cows. While all greenhouse gases (methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases) have the potential to warm our planet, methane is more effective at trapping heat than CO2, making it one of the most potent greenhouse gases. According to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), methane’s impact over a 100-year timespan is 28 times greater than the impact of carbon dioxide.

However, when analyzing the greenhouse effect and role each greenhouse gas plays in warming the Earth’s average temperature, the impact of cattle-created methane may be lower than we think. Why? Because that methane is actually recycled as part of a natural process known as the biogenic carbon cycle. And because of the role that cattle — and other ruminants — play in that cycle, they have the potential to be a driving force in fighting climate change in the years and decades to come.

Livestock, methane and the biogenic carbon cycle

The biogenic carbon cycle is the process by which plants, animals and the environment recycle carbon. Here’s a look at how it works:

  • Plants capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air via photosynthesis and convert it into carbohydrates.
  • Those carbon-based carbohydrates are sequestered in the soil and stored within the plant, until they are consumed by ruminants like cattle.
  • Some of that carbon is released back into the atmosphere in the form of methane via belching and manure.
  • Over the next dozen or so years, that methane is broken down and converted back into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, allowing the cycle to begin again.

 The biogenic carbon cycle is a key part of life: feeding plants, which then feed animals, which then feed us.

In the biogenic carbon cycle, carbon is recycled rather than rapidly created and accumulated. And, importantly, the biogenic carbon cycle is relatively quick, taking place over the course of decades rather than the centuries or millennia it takes for greenhouse gases from fossil fuels to be redeposited back into the earth.

Not all greenhouses gases are created equal

 That rapidity is what makes methane a different kind of greenhouse gas. Methane behaves differently in the atmosphere from other greenhouse gases, and its long-term effects on global warming are therefore also different. According to the CLEAR Center, the major factor contributing to the warming effect of a greenhouse gas is whether it is a stock or a flow gas.

Stock gases are long-lived, and they remain and accumulate in the Earth’s atmosphere for thousands of years. Carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere for centuries, is a stock gas, and its warming effects on our climate are long-lasting and growing. Flow gases, on the other hand, are short-lived gases that are removed from the atmosphere at a much faster pace. Because flow gases do not build up in the atmosphere, their warming impact has a shorter lifespan than stock gases.

Methane is a flow gas, with an atmospheric lifespan of around 12 years. New sources of methane will add warming to our planet for 12 years, but if the emission rate remains near constant over time, methane is destroyed at roughly the same rate that it is produced. It breaks down into its component molecules, including carbon dioxide, which can then be removed from the atmosphere and recycled through the biogenic carbon cycle.

“What makes methane from animal agriculture a flow gas is that it’s not just produced — it’s destroyed and taken out of the atmosphere,” said Dr. Mitloehner.

The bottom line: methane just doesn’t have the same atmospheric effects as carbon dioxide. That’s why the way we think about it, treat it and strategize around it should be different when it comes to our future plans to mitigate rising greenhouse gas concentrations and the effects of climate change.

How does eating meat affect climate change?

Some sources point to ruminant livestock like cattle and sheep as carbon-heavy food sources due to the methane they emit and the resources needed to raise them. But as we’ve already discussed, the methane emitted by livestock can’t compare to the greenhouse gases emitted through fossil fuel combustion in transportation and other industrial processes.

But if Americans did stop eating meat, what kind of effect would that have on climate change? According to Dr. Mitloehner, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States would be less than 3%, as estimated in a 2017 paper by professors Mary Beth White and Robin R. Hall — “a minimal and short-term impact on the climate,” as Dr. Mitloehner describes.

On the other hand, eating meat places us within the biogenic carbon cycle — and allows us to take advantage of land that would otherwise go unused. As part of the biogenic carbon cycle, ruminants like cattle help recycle carbon by eating plants that wouldn’t be edible to humans, like grasses and shrubs. The cellulose formed during the biogenic carbon cycle is found in especially high amounts in plants growing in “marginal lands” where human crops can’t grow, according to the CLEAR Center at the University of California, Davis. Humans can’t digest cellulose — but ruminants like cattle can. The biogenic carbon cycle allows livestock to turn indigestible plants and otherwise unusable land into an important food source for humans.

Smart agricultural practices can help cut down on the impact that raising ruminant livestock can have on greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a trend that’s been happening for decades: As cited by Progressive Cattle, greenhouse gas emissions from cattle per pound of beef have dropped by 6% since 1990. Jerry Bohn, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, cites a 30% drop in emissions from beef cattle from 1975 to 2017. The pattern is clear — and the opportunities are enormous.

When consumers choose livestock and agriculture farms that employ environmentally friendly farming practices — including methods to help decrease livestock methane emissions, planting cover crops, employing crop rotation and integrating trees into livestock grazing lands through silvopasture practices — they’re investing in the biogenic carbon cycle and supporting farmers who are making a positive impact on climate change.

Decreasing livestock methane emissions

 Since methane from agriculture isn’t building up in the atmosphere at the same rate as carbon dioxide, it has staggering implications: If methane from cattle is reduced, it can actually generate a cooling effect in which the biogenic carbon cycle offsets carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. With a deeper understanding of the physical scientific basis of climate change and the role technology can play in helping to mitigate it, farmers can proactively contribute to this effort. There are a variety of ways farmers can decrease the amount of methane produced by their livestock, including:

  • Incorporating methane-reducing feed additives like tannins, seaweed, fats and oils, which can help inhibit methanogens in the rumen. Farmers are also turning to solutions like yeast to reduce cattle methane emissions and nitrogen excretion rates — all while increasing milk yield, milk fat and protein content, and nitrogen uptake via improved ruminal bacteria.
  • Examining feeding strategies, like increasing the level of dietary fat and adding more grain into cattle feed rations, which have been shown to reduce methane emissions. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, a diet of crushed oilseeds (like sunflower seed, canola seed or flaxseed) or dried corn distillers grain reduced the energy lost as methane by up to 20% — a major impact from a simple switch.
  • Exploring changes in manure management and manure storage, like aerating and composting cattle manure to reduce the amount of methane emitted. Methane produced by manure can even be used as an energy source. Dairy digester technology is turning manure into natural gas, which can be used to run generators or natural gas vehicles, or be resold to local utility companies.

The outlook and the opportunity

Like so many other industries, agriculture and livestock do have an impact on climate change, but the outlook for the industry’s future is bright. By continuing to make smart, efficient, environmentally friendly decisions when it comes to the way livestock is raised, the agricultural industry has the opportunity to do more than decrease emissions — it can help combat climate change on a global scale. And by choosing to support those farmers, everyday consumers can contribute to that effort.

The World Economic Forum has identified the opportunity for the agriculture industry, as well as what’s standing in the way: “While industry innovation has opened the door for farmers to capitalize on incremental advancements in sustainability, we need to help make it easy and profitable for farmers as part of a package that brings positive climate impact.”

Farmers and ranchers need sound information and accessible, science-based solutions that benefit their livestock and the environment. Those solutions need to be readily available to farmers across the globe, with a shared network of information on best practices and ways to adapt them to different countries, cultures and climates. That’s how farmers, ranchers and the livestock industry can help make a positive impact on climate change while Working Together for a Planet of Plenty™.

Carbon dioxide, methane and cattle: What’s the connection?

Carbon dioxide, methane and cattle: What’s the connection?

There’s no denying that methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases (GHGs) and that cattle play a role in the climate change story. But what if the impact that belching cows have on global warming has been largely overstated? And what if there’s a missing link between methane’s potency and rising global temperatures?

Piecing together the climate change puzzle is anything but simple, but one thing is clear: In order to better understand the science behind methane and cattle production, we must take a closer look at greenhouse gases and how they behave in the atmosphere.

Let’s start with the basics.

Greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect

When greenhouse gases are released, they trap heat and prevent the sun’s solar energy from bouncing back into space. This warms the planet, creating what’s known as the “greenhouse effect.” Although it may sound unnerving, the greenhouse effect is a natural process, and without it, the Earth’s average temperature would be a frigid 0 degrees Fahrenheit. So it’s actually not a bad thing.

The main gases responsible for the greenhouse effect are:

  • Carbon dioxide
  • Methane
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Water vapor
  • Fluorinated gases

All of these gases occur naturally, with the exception of fluorinated gases, which are synthetic.

More people, more impact

As our world’s population has continued to grow, so has our environmental footprint. More than 97% of climate scientists agree that our planet has been warming over the past several decades, and that this warming is overwhelmingly the result of human activities.

Of principal concern to the science community is carbon dioxide, which is the primary contributor and largest source of total emissions worldwide. With carbon dioxide emissions in the United States having increased by about 90% since 1970, we are facing mounting pressure to reduce our carbon footprint while still meeting the needs of our growing population.

From the burning of coal, natural gas and oil for transportation to the use of fluorinated gases like chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) in refrigeration systems and aerosol cans, the release of heat-trapping gases poses a significant threat to the future of our planet. These threats range from extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, storms, floods and even snowfall to rising sea levels and erosion.

Where does methane fit into the equation?

While all greenhouse gases have the potential to warm our planet, methane is more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide — making it one of the most potent GHGs. According to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), methane’s impact over a 100-year timespan is 28 times greater than the impact of CO2. This reality is challenging industries across the board to do their part to reduce methane, with agriculture often closely scrutinized for its role in methane production.

Cattle have long carried the weight of the climate change conversation due to the methane they emit when belching or digesting certain foods. But what’s often overlooked is the fact that the methane emitted by cows is actually recycled through a natural process known as the biogenic carbon cycle.

Here’s how it works: When plants capture CO2 from the air via photosynthesis, it’s converted into carbohydrates. These carbon-based carbohydrates are sequestered in the soil and stored within the plant and are then consumed by ruminants like cattle. Some of that carbon is then released back into the atmosphere in the form of methane via belching and manure. Over the next dozen years or so, that methane is converted back into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, allowing the cycle to begin again.

It’s also important to note that methane behaves differently in the atmosphere from other greenhouse gases, and its long-term effects on global warming are therefore also different. According to the CLEAR Center at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), the major factor contributing to the warming effect of a greenhouse gas is whether it is a stock or a flow gas.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, director of the CLEAR Center and professor and air quality specialist at UC Davis, said in a recent article published by Ag Journal, “We have treated methane as a ‘stock’ gas, but it’s not. It’s a flow gas.”

What’s the difference between a stock gas and a flow gas?

In short, stock gases are long-lived gases that remain and accumulate in the Earth’s atmosphere for thousands of years. Flow gases, on the other hand, are short-lived. This means that they are removed from the atmosphere at a much faster pace. And because flow gases do not build up in the atmosphere, their warming impact has a shorter lifespan than stock gases.

To break it down simply, let’s look at the two most prominent greenhouse gases and how they compare: carbon dioxide (a stock gas) and methane (a flow gas).

  1. Carbon dioxide is a stock gas. The CO2 released during fossil fuel combustion is the most prominent stock gas in our atmosphere and has a strong effect on climate change. Every time we drive our gas-powered cars, the CO2 emitted from the tailpipe creates a snowball effect on the existing CO2 in the atmosphere, which creates a warming effect on our climate for thousands of years to come.
  2. Methane is a flow gas. The atmospheric lifespan of methane is around 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide remains for centuries. New sources of methane will add warming to our planet for 12 years, but if the emission rate remains near constant over time, methane is destroyed at roughly the same rate that it is produced. Therefore, temperatures can stabilize, and no additional warming effect occurs. Keep in mind this doesn’t mean methane hasn’t already added warming, just that once emissions and removal have balanced out, there won’t be further warming.

“What makes methane from animal agriculture a flow gas is that it’s not just produced — it’s destroyed and taken out of the atmosphere,” said Dr. Mitloehner.

A simple way to think of it is that methane has the ability to go with the flow. As it’s emitted, it’s also destroyed. But carbon dioxide emissions stock the atmosphere with additional CO2, which accumulates over time instead of being destroyed.

Different lifecycle, different impact

What it boils down to is the fact that when CO2 — a stock gas — is emitted into the atmosphere, it not only remains for thousands of years; it builds up, creating a surplus of CO2. However, when cattle and other ruminants emit methane, a flow gas, it only stays in the atmosphere for about 12 years before it’s destroyed. Plus, if methane from cattle is reduced, it can actually generate a cooling effect in which the biogenic carbon cycle offsets CO2 from fossil fuels.

Considering these important factors, comparing a stock gas to a flow gas just doesn’t add up.

The road to real climate solutions

Despite the fact that studies have shown that humans are a bigger source of climate-altering methane than was previously thought, the livestock industry still has a ways to go in escaping the long shadow of methane production. There is enormous potential, however, for the industry to make a difference, even helping to offset emissions made by other sectors, especially as methane reductions become more available and scalable.

It’s not a question of whether reducing biogenic methane emissions from animal agriculture is worthwhile — of course it is. But developing real climate solutions must begin with clarifying the misinformation that’s pervaded the industry for far too long. To lead the way to a cleaner, greener future, we must reconsider how methane and other greenhouse gases behave in the atmosphere, as well as how they warm our planet. Together, scientists, farmers, consumers and the agriculture industry have the power to debunk myths and take active steps toward climate neutrality — so let’s get moo-ving.

I want to learn more about a Planet of Plenty.


Clearing the air: Animal agriculture and greenhouse gases

Clearing the air: Animal agriculture and greenhouse gases

It’s time to clear the air on the real relationship between cattle and climate change. Cows have long been cast as the villain in the climate conversation. While cows do impact our climate, it is often an exaggerated impact, and the science surrounding cattle production and greenhouse gas emissions tells a different story — one that begins with understanding how different greenhouse gases work and the environmental impacts of each gas.

Is the warming effect of all greenhouse gases (GHGs) the same? And could livestock producers actually be part of the climate solution? Let’s start with the basics.

Not all greenhouse gases are created equal

 First, it’s crucial to understand that multiple greenhouse gases contribute to the greenhouse effect, and each one impacts the environment differently.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most prominent GHG and is often considered synonymous with all greenhouse gases, but it’s not.

  • How carbon dioxide is released: Through human activities like the burning of fossil fuels, land use changes and deforestation, and other natural processes.
  • How long it remains: Centuries.
  • How it’s removed: Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, or sequestered, when it’s absorbed by plants as part of the biogenic carbon cycle.

Methane (CH4) is a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential that’s about 28 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Methane does not cause direct harm to human health or crop production, but its presence in the atmosphere can affect the amount of other greenhouse gases like tropospheric ozone, water vapor and carbon dioxide.

  • How methane is released: Methane is released during the production and transport of coal, natural gas and oil. Methane is also released through decomposing plant matter, livestock and other agricultural practices.
  • How long it remains:  About 12 years.
  • How it’s removed: Methane is broken down in the air by a natural process called hydroxyl oxidation, during which atmospheric radicals take hydrogen away from methane and convert it to CO2. That means as methane is produced, it’s also destroyed.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is an ozone-depleting gas that’s about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

  • How nitrous oxide is released: From bacteria in the soil, through modern agricultural practices like tilling, soil cultivation and livestock waste management, and through the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers.
  • How long it remains: About 110 years.
  • How it’s removed: Nitrous oxide is absorbed by certain types of bacteria or destroyed by ultraviolet radiation or chemical reactions.

Taking the heat off of cattle

Now that we’re clear on the differences between the top greenhouse gases, where do cattle and farm systems come into play? This is a subject Dr. Frank Mitloehner, director of the CLEAR Center and a professor and air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, is committed to clarifying.

It’s commonly said that livestock emissions represent anywhere from 14% to 50% of total GHG emissions. But according to Dr. Mitloehner, this does not reflect actual livestock emissions in developed countries like the United States, where the number is closer to just 4% of all U.S. emissions.

Beyond misconceptions like this is the fact that the general public is just not aware of how greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide actually work — and their varying impacts on the planet.

Comparing cows to cars just doesn’t add up

Yes, methane is more potent than carbon dioxide. But the environmental differences between belching cows and gas-guzzling cars has become increasingly clear.

For example, as a short-lived “flow gas,” methane only lives in the atmosphere for about 12 years. This means the global warming potential of methane emissions is a small window of time. And after that time, methane is destroyed and absorbed by plants as CO2, converted into cellulose and eaten by livestock. This is possible via hydroxyl oxidation, a powerful natural process by which methane is broken into CO2 and becomes available to enter the biogenic carbon cycle.

In short, if a source of methane such as a herd of cattle stays constant for 12 years, its methane emissions will nearly equal what is destroyed. In other words, if herd sizes were to remain constant for a decade, the rate of methane emission would balance out with its natural removal from the atmosphere, thus making the warming impact neutral.

“What makes methane from animal agriculture a flow gas is that it’s not just produced — it’s destroyed and taken out of the atmosphere,” said Dr. Mitloehner.

On the other hand, carbon dioxide packs a longer-lasting punch. As the primary climate change culprit, CO2 is a “stock gas” that culminates in impact over hundreds of thousands of years. So while methane is quickly removed from the atmosphere, CO2 persists for centuries, adding greater warming impacts over time. This steady accumulation leads to exponential increases in warming, whereas when methane increases, the warming is linear.

Making animal agriculture a part of the climate solution

 It’s not a question whether animal agriculture plays a role in climate change. Of course it does. But in order to find the most innovative climate solutions, we have to look at the bigger picture. Casting livestock as the scapegoat for a problem that’s much larger than grazing cattle is not the answer. We must work together to shed light on the facts, debunk agriculture myths and improve sustainable farm management practices.

California is proof that the path to carbon neutral dairy production and sustainable animal farming practices is more than possible. By implementing solutions for animals raised on farms like dairy digesters, integrated nutrient management, cover crops and manure management systems, livestock producers can make small changes that can make a big difference in protecting our planet for generations to come. From the processing and transportation of animal products to emissions generated from feed production and processing, minimizing agriculture’s footprint will require a holistic approach that is rooted in science, truth and research.

I want to learn more about a Planet of Plenty.


Moo-ving carbon: Cattle and the biogenic carbon cycle

Moo-ving carbon: Cattle and the biogenic carbon cycle

For years, cattle have carried the weight of the world in the climate change story — viewed as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions due to the methane they belch as well as digesting certain foods. While it’s true that beef cattle and dairy cows create methane, we need to consider that when combating climate change, it turns out that the impact of cattle-created methane may be lower than we think.

Why? Because that methane is actually recycled as part of a natural process known as the biogenic carbon cycle. And because of cattle’s — and other ruminants’ — role in that cycle, they have the potential to be a driving force in fighting climate change in the years and decades to come.

What is the biogenic carbon cycle?

The biogenic carbon cycle is the process by which plants, animals and the environment recycle carbon. Plants capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air via photosynthesis and convert it into carbohydrates. Those carbon-based carbohydrates are sequestered in the soil and stored within the plant, and then they are consumed by ruminants like cattle. Some of that carbon is released back into the atmosphere in the form of methane via belching and manure. And over the next dozen or so years, that methane is converted back into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, allowing the cycle to begin again.

The biogenic carbon cycle is a key part of life: feeding plants, which then feed animals, which then feed us. In the biogenic carbon cycle, carbon is recycled rather than rapidly created and accumulated. And, importantly, the biogenic carbon cycle is relatively quick, taking place over the course of decades rather than the centuries or millennia it takes for greenhouse gases from fossil fuels to be redeposited back into the earth.

How do livestock emissions play into the biogenic carbon cycle?

Ruminant livestock like cattle play an important role in the biogenic carbon cycle. During photosynthesis, much of the carbon absorbed by a plant is converted into cellulose, a form of carbohydrate that acts as a building block for growing plants. Cellulose is found in grasses, shrubs and trees around the world, but it is especially high in plants growing in “marginal lands” where human crops can’t grow, according to the CLEAR Center at the University of California, Davis. Humans can’t digest cellulose — but ruminants like cattle can.

Because of cattle’s unique digestive system — a slow, methodical, microbe-heavy process involving a four-part stomach — they can digest cellulose-dense plants like grasses. This design allows cattle to take their place in the biogenic carbon cycle, converting carbon from cellulose into methane in the atmosphere, which eventually converts back into carbon to feed more plants. And as cattle eat those cellulose-rich plants, they’re converting an energy source that’s inaccessible to humans — grown on land that can’t grow anything else — into a source of high-quality protein.

How to reduce livestock emissions

 The biogenic carbon cycle is a loop, recycling carbon over and over again. So what happens if we reduce the methane emissions being produced by cattle as part of that cycle?

Plants will always need carbon dioxide. If we reduce the amount of methane produced by cattle — in ways we’ll get to in a moment — plants will start drawing on the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to maintain their growth. By reducing the amount of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we can help slow global warming.

 “If you reduce methane from cattle, you pull carbon out of the atmosphere, and that induces global cooling,” said Dr. Frank Mitloehner, director of the CLEAR Center and a professor and air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis. “Can it be done? It can be done, and it has been done.”

There are a variety of ways to decrease the amount of methane produced by livestock. Here are a few of the steps farmers can take toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing the environmental impact of their cattle.

  • Incorporate methane-reducing feed additives to reduce enteric fermentation and lower methane production. Additives like tannins, seaweed, fats and oils can help inhibit methanogens in the rumen, which in turn reduce enteric methane emissions. Farmers are also turning to solutions like yeast to reduce cattle methane emissions and nitrogen excretion rates — all while increasing milk yield, milk fat and protein content, and nitrogen uptake via improved ruminal bacteria.
  • Examine feeding strategies. For example, increasing the level of dietary fat and adding more grain into cattle feed rations have both been shown to reduce methane emissions. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, a diet of crushed oilseeds (sunflower seed, canola seed or flaxseed) or dried corn distillers grain reduced the energy lost as methane by up to 20%.
  • Explore changes in manure management and manure storage, like aerating and composting cattle manure to reduce the amount of methane emitted.

Some farmers are even finding ways to capture the methane produced by manure for use as an energy source. In California, dairy digester technology is turning manure into natural gas, which can be used to run generators or natural gas vehicles, or be re-sold to local utility companies in a true win-win. Fiscalini Farms outside Modesto, California, uses a dairy methane digester to power the entire farm operation as well as about 300 homes in the community!

Every farm and operation is different, of course. The variety of ways available to reduce methane emissions from cattle gives farmers more options to find the best solutions for them. And all those solutions can add up to a major, positive impact for the climate for generations to come.

The power of cattle

 Cattle have a vital role to play in the story of our planet. As part of the biogenic carbon cycle, they help recycle carbon while providing humans with a vital food source. And as a controllable source of methane, they have the potential to play an even bigger role in our efforts to slow and reverse global warming.

It all comes down to how we manage our cattle. From improving feed efficiency and monitoring their feed intake to how we dispose of their waste, the power to lower the carbon hoofprint of cattle is in the hands of our farmers and the animal agriculture industry at large. With the proper research, planning and understanding, we can stop scapegoating cattle in the climate change discussion and realize their true potential in helping reverse global warming.

I want to learn more about a Planet of Plenty.


Grazing for good: Silvopasture and carbon emissions

Grazing for good: Silvopasture and carbon emissions

image of field

What if there was an ancient solution to one of the planet’s most pressing modern problems? A problem that’s been challenging us to rethink the way we live — and our role in protecting the world around us.

Enter silvopasture. It’s a form of agroforestry that combines the farming of livestock, trees and land management to sustain healthier soil and higher biodiversity and to reverse climate change through carbon sequestration.

Silvopasture may sound complex, but it’s actually quite simple. Silva is Latin for “forest,” and a pasture is an open, grassy space where livestock typically graze. Taken together (“forest” plus “pasture”), silvopasture refers to planting trees in existing pasture or establishing pasture in existing woodland.

So, where do we stand with carbon, and how do silvopasture systems come into play?

Much ado about carbon

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the global livestock sector currently emits an estimated 7.1 gigatons of CO2-equivalent per year, representing 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This has put sustainable cattle production at the forefront of the climate change discussion, challenging farmers worldwide to lower their carbon footprint while increasing productivity.

From integrating more renewable energy sources to decreasing the use of fossil fuels in industrial agriculture to implementing agroecological and organic farming practices, more and more producers — both large and small — are doing their part to make our food system safer and more climate neutral.

One of the most promising strategies for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and decreasing carbon emissions in agriculture is silvopasture. Project Drawdown, a California-based think tank for climate solutions, says that silvopasture far outpaces any grassland technique for counteracting the methane emissions of livestock and sequestering carbon under-hoof. In fact, silvopasture land sequesters five to 10 times more carbon from the atmosphere than land of the same size that is treeless.

And with the carbon footprint of beef production continuing to raise concerns, the need for sustainable cattle production and responsible grazing is only continuing to grow.

Powered by nature

Imagine dozens of cows grazing comfortably among tall grass in a shaded woodland dotted with towering trees. At first glance, one may never guess as much, but this sight holds the potential to reforest our land and fight climate change.

As a subset of agroforestry, the concept of silvopasture — also known as carbon farming — is pretty straightforward. It’s based on a deep understanding of how animal and agricultural systems work together as part of a single ecosystem.

Essentially, silvopasture centers on alley cropping and the intentional rotation of large herds of livestock through dense intercroppings of grasses, trees and shrubs. When combined, our Earth’s unique natural landscapes and the animals that inhabit them serve as agricultural powerhouses with the potential to increase production and protect the planet.

Here’s a glimpse at the harmonious relationship between our land, our wildlife and our future:

  1. It’s no secret that livestock animals produce significant amounts of methane. However, both trees and soil can capture carbon — which make forests some of Earth’s most powerful natural weapons.
  2. When plants take in carbon dioxide, it’s photosynthesized. This sends carbon through their roots as sugars. There, living organisms, from arthropods to bacteria, turn it into stored carbon.
  3. While traditional crop and animal farming practices, like plowing and tilling, expose carbon to air, where it combines with oxygen to become CO2, silvopasture allows carbon to be stored and for wildlife to thrive.
  4. Bacteria and fungi bring together minerals in the earth with the carbon in sugars to create tiny aggregates with spaces that act as sponges between them. These small spaces are where water is held in times of drought.
  5. This creates a powerful ecosystem beneath our feet that’s rich with living organisms — and serves as the perfect environment for sequestering carbon for centuries to come. With about 25% of Earth’s carbon emissions having historically been captured by Earth’s forests, farms and grasslands, silvopasture can help sustain landscapes that are better vegetated with hydrated soil and that offer plenty of area for carbon capture and storage.

The benefits of silvopasture, however, go far beyond capturing and storing carbon.

  • Livestock: Trees protect animals from heat and cold, creating a sheltered microclimate that can improve forage quality, prolong seasons of growth and even lead to better-quality meat due to the lowering of variables that can increase stress in livestock. Many trees, as well as the fruits and nuts they bear, can also be eaten by livestock, which decreases the need for farmers to buy external feed for their stock.
  • Land: When animals graze, brushy species are controlled, which reduces the potential for fire hazards. In addition, some waste produced by animals is beneficial for plant growth, serving as a natural fertilizer and reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides. Additionally, with high tree density comes improved soil health and moisture, which means less erosion and more resilient land over time. Silvopasture also increases biodiversity, creating a healthier habitat for the animals and organisms that inhabit the forest.
  • Prosperity: Livestock farmers who add timber or pine straw harvest into their forage production can produce more and, subsequently, increase their income more than those who practice grazing alone. Silvopasture also increases the agricultural productivity of each square foot of land, allowing farmers to get a greater return on their harvests.

Greener pastures, happier planet

These elements combined have made silvopasture one of the most effective agricultural production practices — not just for managing livestock farming, but for rebuilding healthier forests and reversing the impacts of climate change to prevent global warming as well.

Project Drawdown estimates that silvopasture is currently practiced on 351 million acres of land worldwide — but that’s not enough. If this number reached 554 million acres by 2050, the impact on global warming would be staggering. To be exact, CO2 emissions could be reduced by 31.19 gigatons.

So, how can animals, trees and farmers work together to regenerate our earth, our climate and, ultimately, our future? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach; the needs of every region and every farmer will be different due to varying microclimates and access to resources, as well as their individual knowledge and skills. But with the proper research, training, investment and support, farmers can feed the world and its growing population, all while working together to meet challenging climate goals.

What if there was an ancient solution to one of the planet’s most pressing modern problems? A problem that’s been challenging us to rethink the way we live — and our role in protecting the world around us.

Enter silvopasture. It’s a form of agroforestry that combines the farming of livestock, trees and land management to sustain healthier soil and higher biodiversity and to reverse climate change through carbon sequestration.

Silvopasture may sound complex, but it’s actually quite simple. Silva is Latin for “forest,” and a pasture is an open, grassy space where livestock typically graze. Taken together (“forest” plus “pasture”), silvopasture refers to planting trees in existing pasture or establishing pasture in existing woodland.

So, where do we stand with carbon, and how do silvopasture systems come into play? 

Much ado about carbon

With agriculture representing nearly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, farmers worldwide are being challenged to lower their carbon footprint while increasing their productivity. From integrating more renewable energy sources to decreasing the use of fossil fuels in industrial agriculture to transitioning to agroecological and organic farming practices, more and more producers — both large and small — are doing their part to make our food system safer and more climate neutral.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the livestock sector currently emits an estimated 7.1 gigatons of CO2-equivalent per year, representing 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This has put sustainable cattle production at the forefront of the climate change discussion — and farmers are paying attention.

One of the most promising strategies for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and decreasing carbon emissions in agriculture is silvopasture. Project Drawdown, a California-based think tank for climate solutions, says that silvopasture far outpaces any grassland technique for counteracting the methane emissions of livestock and sequestering carbon under-hoof. In fact, silvopasture land sequesters five to 10 times more carbon from the atmosphere than land of the same size that is treeless.

And with the carbon footprint of beef production continuing to raise concerns, the need for sustainable cattle production and responsible grazing is only continuing to grow.

Powered by nature

Imagine dozens of cows grazing comfortably among tall grass in a shaded woodland dotted with towering trees. At first glance, one may never guess as much, but this sight holds the potential to reforest our land and fight climate change.

As a subset of agroforestry, the concept of silvopasture — also known as carbon farming — is pretty straightforward. It’s based on a deep understanding of how animal and agricultural systems work together as part of a single ecosystem.

Essentially, silvopasture centers on alley cropping and the intentional rotation of large herds of livestock through dense intercroppings of grasses, trees and shrubs. When combined, our Earth’s unique natural landscapes and the animals that inhabit them serve as agricultural powerhouses with the potential to increase production and protect the planet.

Here’s a glimpse at the harmonious relationship between our land, our wildlife and our future:

  1. It’s no secret that livestock animals produce significant amounts of methane. However, both trees and soil can capture carbon — which make forests some of Earth’s most powerful natural weapons.
  2. When plants take in carbon dioxide, it’s photosynthesized. This sends carbon through their roots as sugars. There, living organisms, from arthropods to bacteria, turn it into stored carbon.
  3. While traditional crop and animal farming practices, like plowing and tilling, expose carbon to air, where it combines with oxygen to become CO2, silvopasture allows carbon to be stored and for wildlife to thrive.
  4. Bacteria and fungi bring together minerals in the earth with the carbon in sugars to create tiny aggregates with spaces that act as sponges between them. These small spaces are where water is held in times of drought.
  5. This creates a powerful ecosystem beneath our feet that’s rich with living organisms — and serves as the perfect environment for sequestering carbon for centuries to come. With about 25% of Earth’s carbon emissions having historically been captured by Earth’s forests, farms and grasslands, silvopasture can help sustain landscapes that are better vegetated with hydrated soil and that offer plenty of area for carbon capture and storage.

The benefits of silvopasture, however, go far beyond capturing and storing carbon.  

  • Livestock: Trees protect animals from heat and cold, creating a sheltered microclimate that can improve forage quality, prolong seasons of growth and even lead to better-quality meat due to the lowering of variables that can increase stress in livestock. Many trees, as well as the fruits and nuts they bear, can also be eaten by livestock, which decreases the need for farmers to buy external feed for their stock.
  • Land: When animals graze, brushy species are controlled, which reduces the potential for fire hazards. In addition, some waste produced by animals is beneficial for plant growth, serving as a natural fertilizer and reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides. Additionally, with high tree density comes improved soil health and moisture, which means less erosion and more resilient land over time. Silvopasture also increases biodiversity, creating a healthier habitat for the animals and organisms that inhabit the forest.
  • Prosperity: Livestock farmers who add timber or pine straw harvest into their forage production can produce more and, subsequently, increase their income more than those who practice grazing alone. Silvopasture also increases the agricultural productivity of each square foot of land, allowing farmers to get a greater return on their harvests.

Greener pastures, happier planet

These elements combined have made silvopasture one of the most effective agricultural production practices — not just for managing livestock farming, but for rebuilding healthier forests and reversing the impacts of climate change to prevent global warming as well.

Project Drawdown estimates that silvopasture is currently practiced on 351 million acres of land worldwide — but that’s not enough. If this number reached 554 million acres by 2050, the impact on global warming would be staggering. To be exact, CO2 emissions could be reduced by 31.19 gigatons.

So, how can animals, trees and farmers work together to regenerate our earth, our climate and, ultimately, our future? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach; the needs of every region and every farmer will be different due to varying microclimates and access to resources, as well as their individual knowledge and skills. But with the proper research, training, investment and support, farmers can feed the world and its growing population, all while working together to meet challenging climate goals.