November 27, 2021

Cattle ‘upcycle’ by eating plants inedible to humans

Rangeland provides feed, expands land base available for food production

DUBUQUE, Iowa — Cattle are upcyclers that eat plants inedible to humans and turn them into high quality food for people.

“Upcycling is taking something that has little or no value and making it a higher value product,” said Sara Place, chief sustainability officer for Elanco.

“That’s what ruminants do every day because they’re consuming things we can’t eat directly and the land they’re using is not in competition with crop production either.”

With photosynthesis, energy is captured in plants that are eaten by animals.

“The rumen microbes break down the cellulose, and we get a high nutrient dense product,” Place said during a presentation at the Driftless Region Beef Conference, hosted by University of Illinois Extension, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension.

“Beef is a carbon-captured product because carbon that was in the air is now on your plate, and it is carbon that wouldn’t have been accessed without cattle,” she said.

Place talked about the feed resources used to produce grain-finished beef in the United States.

“Forage is 82% of the total feed resources used by the beef industry, another 7% are byproduct feeds and 11% is grain,” she said. “About 90% of those feeds are not in direct competition with human food.”

Place compared grain-finished beef to broiler chickens and pork production.

“The amount of human editable feed inputs per unit of live weight gain is pretty similar across those three meat species,” she said.

“However, if you take the protein value to people of the meat divided by the same value of the feed inputs going into those animals,” she said, “there is over two times more high quality protein generated from the U.S. beef system that is being used, which is a really good sustainability story.”

Pigs and chickens eat high quality protein such as soybean meal.

“That’s why the ratio is not as favorable to them,” Place said.

Most of the feed resource requirement for cattle is generated from grazing land.

“That is land that can’t be used for cultivated agriculture,” Place said. “Cattle use more land, but they’re expanding the land base we have available for food production.”

Managing The Ecosystem

Cattle help to manage the ecosystem, especially in the western part of the United States.

“Cattle are ecosystem engineers,” Place said. “Grazing animals can be used to create fire breaks and lower the risk of wild fires.”

The rangeland that cattle graze is too arid, rocky and steep to be cultivated.

“The only way we’re going to generate food for people off this land is with cattle, sheep and goats,” Place said. “Those animals use more land, but it is land that is not in competition for alternative uses for food production.”

Place said it takes 8 million acres of land to produce the corn that is fed to cattle.

“That’s about 2% of the U.S. cropland acres that is actually going directly to cattle,” she said. “The corn we run through cattle to create beef creates a higher quality protein source and more available protein than if we ate the corn directly.”

One acre can’t be used for everything, Place said.

“We have to think about the suitability of the land for different uses,” she said. “Grazing lands with perennial forages often times are a big benefit for lowering soil erosion and decreasing the amount of nutrient losses on those acres.”

The amount of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef produced is not the same for the United States and other countries.

“For some places, the carbon footprint is 50 times greater than the U.S.,” she said. “A lot is driven by how many live cattle it takes to produce beef.”

The United States has 8% or less of the global herd yet produces 20% of the world’s beef, Place said.

“We make 4 to 5 billion pounds more beef than Brazil, but their cattle herd is over twice the size of ours. It takes longer for their cattle to get to slaughter, which requires more feed.”

All ruminants produce methane.

“It comes out of the front end of the animal when it burps,” Place said.

“Animals consume forage, the microbes in their guts break it down, ferment it and a special class of the microbes take the waste products of fermentation and convert it into methane,” she said. “The gas accumulates, and they have to eliminate that gas. If they don’t, they get bloat.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, direct emissions from cattle is 2% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

“That is pretty similar to landfills, and one of the sources that goes to landfills that produces methane gas is food waste,” Place said. “We waste 30% to 40% of edible food.”

All of agriculture contributes 8.5% of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Most of the greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels in the U.S.,” Place said. “That makes up almost 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions.”

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated globally all livestock produced 14.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions.

“Just beef cattle production in the world produced 6% of the emissions, and the U.S. beef production contributed less than half of a percent,” Place said. “You could kill every cow in America and it won’t make a difference.”