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Livestock’s carbon footprint under study

Consumers increasingly want to know the carbon footprint of the way they travel, the laptops they buy and the food they eat. Businesses, manufacturers and farmers want to reduce their environmental impact, as well as offer products designed to appeal to consumer preferences.

For farming operations, reducing the carbon footprint means taking a systematic approach to identifying where environmental impact occurs, what options are available for effective impact reduction and what trade-offs occur along the way.

Michigan State University scientists and MSU Extension staff are asking these questions across the breadth of Michigan agriculture.

Globally, the livestock industry often has an unfair reputation of negatively affecting the environment, though research has shown that properly managed grazing on range and grasslands can be environmentally beneficial.

Key Points

• Study looks at how grazing and forage management affect carbon footprint.

• Aim: Quantify greenhouse gas emissions from animals, pastures after grazing.

• Another study looks at how changing pigs’ diets affects greenhouse gas emissions.

At the MSU AgBioResearch Lake City Research Station, we are conducting a three-year study to assess how grazing management systems and forage management influence the carbon footprint of beef production.

Through photosynthesis, forage plants convert sunlight to energy. Ruminants like cattle can harvest this energy, which in turn is output as meat and milk. The energy a cow generates can be displaced into the soil through manure that supports plant root development. This energy relocation is, in essence, the act of taking carbon from the atmosphere and depositing it into the earth’s crust.

Because very little is known about how grazing affects the carbon cycle and sequestration, the MSU researchers aim to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions from the animals themselves, as well as emissions from pastures after cattle have grazed them.

Grazing’s effect on energy

The results will be used to develop baselines for how grazing can affect energy and the carbon cycle as a way to illustrate how the different systems affect animal performance, emissions and productivity of the system per unit of carbon released.

A similar study lead by Powers and Nathalie Trottier, associate professor of animal science, looks at how changing growing pigs’ diets affects greenhouse gas emissions from pig manure when it is stored and then land-applied for crop production.

The results from this collection of studies will be used to generate options that farmers can use to protect environmental resources while maintaining their bottom line and addressing consumer interests in a reduced carbon footprint.

Powers is a professor and director of agriculture and agribusiness for MSU Extension; email Rowntree is a professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science; send email to


Lunch time: Cattle graze at the MSU AgBioResearch Lake City Research Station. A three-year study will seek to quantify how grazing affects the carbon cycle and sequestration.

This article published in the October, 2012 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.