Recently, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association committed the U.S. beef industry to be climate neutral by 2040, but what does that really mean, how are we going to get there, and what does it mean for the individual producer? Climate neutral is different than carbon neutral in that carbon neutral indicates that carbon emissions are equal to carbon sequestration whereas climate neutral indicates no net global warming effect. Beef cattle most probably can never be carbon neutral due to the biogenic carbon cycle (Figure 1) because it would require carbon sequestration to be as great as the carbon synthesis in plants every year. However, beef cattle can be climate neutral because carbon/methane emissions are part of the biogenic carbon cycle rather than a permanent addition to the atmosphere. If methane emissions and photosynthesis are in equilibrium then there is no net global warming.
Aren’t we already in equilibrium? Short answer is no. It takes a decade or more of static cattle numbers and methane emissions before the cycle is in equilibrium, and beef production results in other gases, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, that increase global warming. Over the last 30 to 40 years, the beef industry has reduced the carbon emissions intensity (carbon per unit of beef) primarily through increased efficiency (lesser inputs per unit of beef) and diluting maintenance requirements of the cow herd with heavier, faster growing calves. U.S. beef industry is the most efficient production system in the world, but we are maximizing growth and size, and so future reduction in global warming potential will need to come through reductions in total carbon emissions per animal.
What does this mean for the rancher? The reduction in carbon emissions and global warming potential will come from application of several management practices and technologies. For example, improved grazing management and use of cover crops will increase soil carbon sequestration, but also improve soil health and forage/crop productivity. Many new feed additives are being developed to reduce methane emissions, some with potential to increase feed efficiency. Genetic tools will allow selection of animals to reduce maintenance energy requirements, and genetically engineer will produce animals resistant to disease. These practices and technologies and many others will be available to ranchers to reduce carbon emissions and global warming potential, but importantly these practices and technologies will improve economics of beef production. Achieving the climate neutrality goal will be challenging, but will spur many new advancements that will make beef production better for the rancher, consumer and environment.