Beef Production Sequesters Carbon

Beefs and Beliefs

Accounting system for good grazing benefits still needs research and improvement.

Published on: June 2, 2011

One of my big peeves with the ongoing debate about “climate change/global warming” is the fact beef production never gets credit for the great job it can do improving rangeland and the carbon sequestration that accomplishes.

Last week I heard Judith Capper, an animal scientist from Washington State University, present an interesting defense of beef’s “carbon footprint” compared with 30 years ago.

In summary of her talk she said, “Anytime we improve productivity we cut resource use.”

While I concur with some of her assessment, I also found myself questioning some of the data she used, which is of course based on available scientific data.

Put another way, science is always well behind the best resource managers and economists generally aren’t good at measuring biological efficiency but only numbers in numbers out.

My list of complaints about such studies is long but here are a few basic points.

* Our modern industry can’t really be compared to the first 60 years of beef production in the last century. There was no significant feedlot sector at that time and the extra weight put on with high-energy feedstuffs is actually an added set of inputs.

* Most water use by cattle cannot be considered “taking resources from humans” since it comes from ponds and streams. Only during the feedlot phase of production could that argument be made.

* The claim is made grass-finishing takes more forage, which is half a lie and half a truth. Grass finishers cannot use continuous grazing, or even poorly managed “rotational” grazing and actually finish cattle. So they become good grass managers and their stocking rate usually doubles or triples. They don’t need more land, just more forage. They grow the extra forage right at home.

* Carbon sequestration by grasslands appears potentially much greater to me than in the half-baked calculations I’ve seen which give it little credit. Further, when grazing is managed well the cattle actually build soil and organic matter. That means they should be given far more credit for their role in recycling under those circumstances. Grasslands and grazing animals co-evolved.

My final peeve is this: The man-caused greenhouse-effect bugaboo which underlies the “climate change” story never made it past the stage of weak hypothesis and yet it’s being treated as a well-tested theory.

One set of data showing the faultiness of the claim is the fact glacial ice cores going back thousands of years show the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere always came at the back end of warming periods, which in turn appear to coincide with increased sunspot activity. The plausible explanation is the ocean, which holds about 93% of all the CO2 in the atmosphere, releases carbon dioxide as it warms.

We humans have made many changes in the environment and potentially the climate which can be documented. We don’t need to make something up.