March 25, 2019

New USDA-ARS study calculated greenhouse gas emissions from beef production

New USDA-ARS study calculated greenhouse gas emissions from beef production

Scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) have published a new comprehensive life-cycle analysis showing how beef cattle production in the United States affects the environment. The study provides a baseline that the USDA-ARS hopes scientists and producers can use as they work to further improve sustainability in animal agriculture.

The results show that greenhouse gas emissions from beef production are surprisingly low, considering the fact that the U.S. beef industry is a major contributor to the food system and economy both nationally and globally.

"We found that 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," says Alan Rotz, an agricultural engineer who led the study, published in Agricultural Systems.

The study spanned five years, seven cattle-producing regions and included data from 2,270 survey responses and site visits across the country. In a press release, USDA-ARS explained that the scope of the study reflects “a beef supply chain that's among the most complex food production systems in the world.”

The USDA-ARS highlighted four main findings from the study:

• Combining data from all seven regions of the study shows that beef production is responsible for 3.3 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. USDA-ARS adds, “By comparison, transportation and electricity generation together made up 56 percent of the total in 2016 and agriculture in general 9 percent.”
• When it comes to fossil energy (such as fuels) cattle production was responsible for less than 1 percent of the total consumed nationally.
• Cattle appear to be more feed efficient than many assume. USDA-ARS says the “only consumed 2.6 pounds of grain per pound of beef cut weight (or, butchered carcass weight), which was comparable to pork and poultry.”
• Not surprising, beef operations in the drier Northwest and Southern Plains regions had the highest total water use (60 percent combined) of all the regions. In all regions, 96 percent of water used for beef production went to irrigating the crops to feed cattle.

Next up, the researchers plan to assess the emissions related to beef packing, processing, marketing and consumption. 

Read more:

Study: Environmental footprints of beef cattle production in the United States

Press release: Study Clarifies U.S. Beef's Resource Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions