Could beef farmers reduce their methane emissions?

Beef cattle
CC BY 2.0 U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

If we're not all going to go vegan overnight, what else can we do to reduce methane from cows?

When Katherine wrote that cutting out meat and dairy is the best thing you can do for the planet, there was inevitable protest from people who argue that well-managed grazing -- for example, the mob grazing practiced by Alan Savory -- can actually be beneficial.

There appears to be a mixed bag of evidence on this topic. Some studies suggest better grazing management could indeed sequester carbon. Others suggest grass-fed beef isn't better at all.

This isn't my area of expertise, so I'm going to leave this debate to the experts. Instead, I'd like to ask a simpler, more incremental question: What can farmers do to minimize the impact of animal agriculture? Here, there appears to be a broader consensus that some forms of management are better than others.

Carbon Brief has an interesting overview of the work of a team at Rothamstead Research Farm in Devon, England, which compared unmanaged grazing land to both a pure grass mixture, as well as a mixture planted up with white clover and grass. The work—which led to a paper by Graham McAuliffe et. al. published in the Journal of Cleaner Production—suggests that average emissions per animal were nearly 25% lower when cows were fed a mix of white clover and grass, compared to a diet of high sugar grass alone. Interestingly, the research also points to significant variation among cows on any single diet, suggesting there is also some room for beef production to reduce emissions through selective breeding.

Whether it's switching up the plant mix on pasture land, or feeding cows seaweed to calm their stomachs, given the global appetite for beef, we'd probably be wise to explore ways to minimize the impacts of animal agriculture and cows in particular. Still, Carbon Brief was careful to emphasize that emissions reductions can only take us so far. Ultimately, says Dr Tara Garnett, a scientist from the University of Oxford’s Food Climate Research Network, we'd probably still be better off if we swapped beef for beans for at least some of our meals.

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