Vet's Opinion

The Madness Over Methane

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BEEF readers know food-animal agriculture is under attack. Animal rights and environmental groups are doing all they can to essentially pressure us out of business. And they aren’t limiting themselves to honesty, either.

Forage digestion and methane production are a good case in point. Here are some interesting statements I’ve found recently in the press:

  1. “A cow will eat 150 lbs. of feed/day, plus 20 lbs. of concentrates.” (Holy smoke! Cull her – yesterday!)
  2. “37% percent of global methane emissions come from cattle." (I was able to find figures ranging from 6% to 37%.)
  3. A cow will produce “300-500 liters of methane/day.” (Again, I saw figures ranging from 100-500 liters)
  4. “Methane concentrations have increased by 100% since 1900.” (This is staggering! Even more staggering: When I was 13, my chest hairs increased by 800% in one month!)
  5. “Agricultural livestock is hogging 30% of the earth’s land surface if you count the crops necessary to feed them.” (Uhhh. I don’t know where to begin on this one!)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe that we need to take care of our environment. But after spending several nights searching through methane information on the Internet, I’ve come to the following conclusions:
  • We don’t have a good method for measuring methane production.
  • I can prove or disprove any point by using Internet information.
Here are a couple of points I think are trustworthy: First, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, domesticated livestock are the third-largest producers of methane, behind landfills and the oil and gas industries. Second, the more forage we have in our cattle’s diet, the more methane will be produced.

If we’re to believe that methane production is on the increase, then are cattle truly the culprit? In the mid 1970s our beef cattle population peaked at 130 million head. In 1980, it was 111 million head, from which we produced 21 billion lbs. of beef. In 2007, our population was 97 million head, which produced 26 billion lbs. of beef. Thus, in the last 27 years, we’ve reduced these methane producers by 14 million head and increased total beef production by nearly 5 billion lbs.! I think we’re doing our part.

What about dairy cows? Their population peaked in 1944, with 25.6 million head; each cow produced 5,300 lbs. of milk/year. Today, there are 9.1 million dairy cattle in the U.S., and they produce 17,000 lbs. of milk/head/year. So, with 16.5 million fewer dairy cattle, we’re producing 19 billion lbs. more milk.

Hmmm. So, methane production is increasing, but we have drastically decreased our population of methane producers; all this while increasing production!

But cattle are still being blamed for the increased methane production. On top of that, less forage is being fed to cattle today than just 20 years ago, let alone 40 years ago. So, not only do we have fewer methane producers, but each of them is producing less methane! I am confused!

In the past couple of years, there have been several news documentaries on global warming; cattle and methane were mentioned in all the programs I saw. But did you know that Earth actually cooled in 2008? Strangely, this did not receive much media attention.

Truth is, cattle production is the low-hanging fruit. Activists see us as easy pickings. We’ve made food production so efficient that increasingly fewer people are needed to produce it; the result is the majority of the population has very little idea of the origin of their food. Now those people are being duped into believing livestock producers don’t care about the environment or their livestock. We must mobilize, unify and become our own activist.
-- Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, Sublette, KS

What's Vet's Opinion?

Three top U.S. veterinarians provide tightly focused discussion of specific beef cattle disease and welfare topics.

Contributors

Dave Sjeklocha

Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is operations manager of animal health and welfare for Cattle Empire, LLC, Satanta, KS.

Mike Apley

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

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