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Southeast: 4 ways grazing beef cattle benefits the environment

Kim Mullenix for Progressive Cattle Published on 27 July 2022

Beef cattle and their impact on the environment are a hot topic in the news. What isn’t news to most beef cattle operations is the positive role they play in sustainability. Below are a few key points for discussion when sharing how beef cattle can provide positive contributions to the environment.

Beef cattle are more efficient now than ever. A recent report noted that although our cattle inventory is similar to the number of cattle in 1990, overall beef production has increased 18% over this time period. In other words, we are harvesting more animal product in 2021 with the same number of animals, or more beef with fewer emissions.

Why do beef cattle emit methane? Cattle release methane through “cow burps” and not through the other end. When forage is digested in the rumen, or the “fermentation vat” of the ruminant digestive system, methane is produced and expelled by the cow, mainly through belching. Fortunately, this methane will then be converted back into carbon dioxide and used by the forage to make carbohydrates, protein and fats that once again are consumed by the cow to complete the cycle.

Beef cattle convert forages into a high-quality product using land resources which would otherwise be unutilized. A common argument is that land for beef cattle could be used for other crops for human consumption. This is not entirely true, as beef cattle spend the majority of their life in forage-based systems. Forages are typically grown on land that is unsuitable for other high-value crops and would be considered land of marginal use without being used for grazing. Instead, beef cattle are ruminants, which have the unique ability to convert forages into a high-quality protein for human consumption. This is the definition of “upcycling.”

Proper grazing management helps build soil health and creates a sink for atmospheric carbon and nitrogen. As part of nature’s carbon cycle, plants require carbon dioxide to complete the process of photosynthesis. Over time, methane in the atmosphere breaks down to carbon dioxide and water, which can be used by plants. Plants store carbon in their above- and below-ground growth – the “grazeable forage” – and their often extensive root system. This builds soil quality over time and helps keep the land productive.

In summary, beef cattle operations in the Southeast contribute toward environmental sustainability by capitalizing on a key resource that is available nearly year round as grazeable forage.   end mark

Kim Mullenix
  • Kim Mullenix

  • Extension Beef Specialist/Associate Professor
  • Auburn University
  • Email Kim Mullenix