The carbon cycle is a necessary part of organic life on our planet and plays a very delicate role in our everyday lives. The carbon cycle allows carbon dioxide to be recycled within an ecosystem, maintaining a balance between atmospheric and sequestered carbon. Having too much or too little of any greenhouse gas can be problematic, and we are currently seeing the results of excess carbon dioxide, as climate change continues to affect global temperatures.
Atmospheric carbon is the carbon found in our air. It is taken in by plants for photosynthesis and used to produce oxygen. Some carbon dioxide is also stored in the plants and is either returned to the atmosphere when the plant dies and breaks down or is stored in the soil through the roots. The latter is called carbon sequestration.
Carbon sequestration and raising beef cattle are connected in a couple of ways. Firstly, any soil that contains vegetation will sequester carbon, and the more plant life there is, the more carbon it can store. This is known as a carbon sink. Forests, vegetation, and even soil can be considered carbon sinks, as they store more carbon than they emit. This helps bring down the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and keeps emissions at bay. Secondly, effective manure management can increase plant growth in pasture and croplands thereby sequestering more carbon in the soil.
However, carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas lending itself to climate change. Cattle and most animals with hooves also emit methane when passing gas, but while methane is twenty-five times more potent than carbon dioxide when it is in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide can last hundreds of years in the atmosphere, while methane only lasts about twelve. This gives methane a lower overall global warming potential (or GWP).
Still, to help keep greenhouse gases in balance, the focus of the beef industry has been to improve the efficiency of beef production while lowering its emissions. This is achieved through research and technological advancements that improve nutrition. By modifying the cattle’s feed, farmers can prevent disease, increase cattle weight, and achieve better reproductive performance, all while reducing the overall size of the herd. Large, healthy cattle mean less are needed to meet beef quotas, resulting in a reduction of methane. Farmers often introduce ionophores into the cattle’s feed to attain these results.
Likewise, research on feed that can aid digestion and reduce methane production is ongoing. A current study by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is in progress to determine whether an increase in the fat content of legumes is a potential method to reduce methane emissions from grazing cattle, with results to appear in 2022.
In 2011, it was measured that the beef industry in Canada produced 32 per cent more beef, but emitted 15 per cent less greenhouse gases than in 1981. There was also a reduction by 27 per cent in cows that were slaughtered while still increasing the amount of beef made.
The beef industry has made a number of advancements in the last forty years. It is challenging to find ways to reduce emissions, but it is all thanks to agriculture researchers and farmers that we have seen more beef produced from less cows, decreasing the footprint of the beef sector. The agriculture and agri-food industry members who continue to revolutionize the sector are lending a massive hand in our journey to a more sustainable future.