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CSU research facility pioneers sustainable cattle farming

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Collegian | AgNext Courtesy
AgNext Courtesy

In a stride toward addressing the environmental concerns surrounding cattle farming, Colorado State University has officially launched its new Climate-Smart Research Facility. The facility will enable researchers and industry partners to measure and potentially reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by cattle. 

In the United States, cattle farming is a hallmark of the agriculture industry and is deeply ingrained in cultural and societal norms surrounding food. The U.S. consistently ranks first in global production and consumption of beef, and the cattle industry brings in more money than any other agricultural sector

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Despite the deep sense of pride this country has around its cattle farming traditions, the industry has come under scrutiny in recent years for contributing to environmental issues like climate change and land degradation. 

It has been hard to miss the slew of news headlines converging on the same idea: gassy cows are warming the planet. This is because cattle produce methane gas as a side effect of digesting fibrous foods, and methane has 25 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide.

Raising cattle and other livestock also takes up a tremendous amount of land: Between 25-35% of the habitable land on Earth is dedicated to livestock agriculture.

So is there a place for cattle farming in a sustainable future? Many scientists believe it is possible not only to decrease the ecological footprint of animal agriculture but also to place cattle at the forefront of sustainable solutions, from improving soil health to bolstering food security.

One such group of scientists is CSU’s own AgNext, and with help from their new Climate-Smart Research Facility, they plan to address these questions directly. One area of AgNext’s research focuses on how to improve the productivity of individual animals.

“Productivity enhancements allow us to produce more with less (cattle), and that can mean less methane,” said Sara Place, an associate professor of feedlot systems at CSU. Improvements in nutrition, breeding practices and overall animal care have already contributed to a dramatic increase in cattle productivity.

“The number of cattle in the U.S. has dropped by almost a full 40 million (head) since the early 1970s, and yet we produced more beef and milk in the United States,” Place said. “That’s a testament to the broader cattle industry advancement and the science that has come from places like CSU.”

One feature that makes the Climate-Smart Research Facility unique is the array of green-feed machines designed to measure greenhouse gas emissions produced by cattle in feedlot systems. As cattle voluntarily approach these machines to munch on alfalfa pellets, special sensors pick up on any carbon dioxide or methane released as the animals burp.

Researchers can then compare different methods for reducing the amount of harmful gasses produced. One way to do this is by testing different diets or supplements that influence the gut microbiome — the microbes that break down food and produce methane as a byproduct.

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Nutrition is only one piece of the puzzle. There are also genetic components to how much methane an individual produces. With more research, it could be possible to selectively breed animals that naturally produce less methane.

Another important factor is the economic impact of sustainability. If sustainable practices are more affordable or profitable than traditional methods, they are more likely to incentivize the cattle industry to implement them.

This is why AgNext prioritized forming a multidisciplinary team of researchers and partners from different areas, Place said.

“That is part of sustainability,” Place said. “You have to be able to hear from all those different perspectives.”

One of AgNext’s industry partners is Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, the world’s largest cattle feeding company. Five Rivers is a Colorado-based company that has roots dating back to the 1920s. The company became interested in partnering with AgNext to better understand how to address their carbon footprint.

“We’re starting to be asked about our emissions and ways to reduce them,” said Tom McDonald, vice president of environmental affairs at Five Rivers. “And we really need information to help us answer that question and make improvements ourselves.”

The research being conducted by groups like AgNext can have economic benefits that help the cattle industry cut costs while benefiting the environment, creating a win-win situation.

“If we can better utilize the energy that we feed to our cattle, then it’s using less natural resources,” McDonald said. “It’s making us more profitable. It’s better for everyone in order to do those things. … So agriculture has always been about efficiency, which also translates to sustainability.”

This collaborative, community-based approach is one of AgNext’s greatest strengths.

“It’s a world-class research facility and scientists that I really do believe will help us move the needle in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and in our carbon footprint,” McDonald said.

Reach Lizzy Rylance at science@collegian.com or on Twitter @csucollegian

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