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Something to ruminate

Progressive Cattle Editor Cassidy Woolsey Published on 24 February 2021

In a recent Progressive Cattle online reader poll, we asked, “Which issue surrounding the beef industry are you most concerned about?” Of the choices listed, environmental policy changes and fake meat were the most selected at 35.6% and 23.8%. Other options included the beef supply chain, international trade and exports, antibiotic restrictions, tax changes and “other.”

The results, I suppose, weren’t a surprise, as our president has made it very clear that climate change is driving much of his agenda. While oil, gas and coal are currently the ones on the chopping block, the misinformation regarding beef and methane emissions is still concerning.

During the virtual Driftless Beef Conference in January, Frank Mitloehner, professor of animal science and air quality extension at University of California – Davis, outlined some solid numbers and science that doesn’t often find its way into mainstream news – one being the difference between global and U.S. greenhouse gas numbers.

According to the EPA, U.S. agriculture contributes 10% of greenhouse gases, with animal agriculture contributing 3.9%. Cars, trucks, trains, ships, power and certain industries such as the cement industry, however, produce over 80% of the nation’s greenhouse gases. The exacerbated numbers we often hear come from “global greenhouse gases” for “global livestock.”

“They are not using U.S. numbers, and they are not doing it for a reason,” Mitloehner said in his presentation.

Many of you have played a part in the major shift in beef cattle production in the last 50 years. You have watched as an emphasis on certain genetics and breeds, the use of reproductive technologies and improved veterinary medicine, and feeding more energy-dense diets have bettered our industry and its overall impact on the environment.

To give a little more context, in the 1970s the U.S. had 140 million head of cattle – and today we have 90 million head. In both 1970 and 2010, 24 million tons of beef were produced. So we have 50 million fewer cattle, but we are producing the same amount of beef. And what’s even more noteworthy is: The U.S. produces 18% of global beef, with 6% of global beef cattle.

That’s pretty remarkable.

Compare that to China’s pork production, for example. China (pre-African swine fever) produces half of the world’s pigs – one billion in total – but of those one billion pigs they produce each year, they have a pre-weaning mortality of 40% or 400 million pigs. That’s larger than the entire U.S. pig crop.

What’s mind-boggling about this is: China is very modern compared to other countries in that region or in the developing world. According to Mitloehner, 70% to 80% of global greenhouse gases associated with livestock come from Indian and African countries. And on top of that, India has three times more cattle than in the U.S., and they don’t even eat them.

While I realize I am speaking to the crowd that actually knows which end of the animal methane comes from, these numbers serve as a reminder of what progressive efforts can do. You might not always be applauded, but the data is there, and you are making a difference.  end mark

Cassidy Woolsey
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