A new USDA Agricultural Research Service study finds greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. beef production and inputs are not “significant contributors” to climate change.

The study, which began in 2013, measured the use of fuel, feed, forage, electricity, water, fertilizer and other inputs to raise beef cattle from birth to slaughter in seven major cattle-producing regions over five years.

The goal was to establish a baseline for the beef industry to measure any potential changes to the sector's environmental footprint and improve sustainability. ARS Agricultural Engineer Alan Rotz led the study and used data from 2,270 survey responses and site visits across the nation.

"We found the greenhouse gas emissions in our analysis were not all that different from what other credible studies had shown and were not a significant contributor to long-term global warming," Rotz said in a release.

The results found:

  • Total beef cattle production accounted for 3.3 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. By comparison, transportation and electricity generation accounted for 56 percent while agriculture in total accounted for 9 percent.
  • Fossil fuels used in cattle production accounted for less than 1 percent of total consumed nationally.
  • Cattle consumed 2.6 pounds of grain per pound of beef, a figure comparable to pork and poultry figures.

"The environmental footprint of producing beef has long been debated," Marlen Eve, ARS deputy administrator for natural resources and sustainable agricultural systems, said. "One challenge is the impacts extend beyond just those associated with growing the animals and include the impact of producing feed and other inputs.”

The study noted water use and reactive nitrate losses could be improved. Water use in the West increased where beef cattle are concentrated. Reactive nitrate losses accounted for 15 percent of the U.S. total, in the form of ammonia, which could lead to public health concerns.

Rotz’s team looked at reactive forms of nitrogen from manure and urine through the "Integrated Farm System Model" (IFSM). Over the next six months, ARS will combine IFSM data with postharvest data to provide a national assessment of the beef industry specifically looking at resource use, economics, net losses of GHG and other emissions.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association provided partial funding for the study.

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