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Two Steps Forward

3 key strategies for transforming the beef industry

A growing array of techniques and technologies aims to reduce the supersized environmental footprint of commercial beef production.

A closeup photo of a Jersey cow with its tongue out

Changes to what cattle eat, how ranches are operated and the nature of the cattle themselves promise to hasten the process of making beef production more sustainable.  Source: Parilov via Shutterstock

This is the third in a series of articles on the quest for sustainable beef. For more, read Part 1 and Part 2.

As cattle ranchers and the world’s largest purveyors of beef take steps to transform its production, they are relying on a growing toolkit of techniques and technologies that aim to reduce the impact of raising cattle on land and water, and on the greenhouse gases emitted along the beef value chain.

Beef TOC

Beyond that, they seek ways to make beef production — or, at least, parts of it — not only less polluting, but also regenerative, restoring land and water ecosystems that beef production has historically diminished or destroyed.

There’s no shortage of innovations, but let’s focus on three key strategies: changing what cattle eat; changing how cattle ranches and farms are managed; and changing the nature of the cattle themselves.

Changing what cattle eat

Cows spend most of their lives eating — mostly grass, hay and other roughage. When they are between 8 and 12 months old, cows bred in North America are sent to feedlots where they are fattened up with a high-starch, high-energy diet, such as corn or a barley-sorghum mix. Outside North America, the vast majority of cows are entirely grass-fed — 96 percent in Brazil and Argentina, for example — though there are differences from country to country.

All that eating helps produce meat — on a feedlot, a typical animal’s weight can double from between 600 and 700 pounds to between 1,100 and 1,500 pounds in a matter of months — and yields vast quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, through a process called enteric fermentation.

Enteric fermentation takes place when sugars are broken down by digestion into simpler molecules for absorption into the cow’s bloodstream. The process produces methane that gets released through bovine burps. Significant amounts of methane are also generated in settling ponds and lagoons used to treat cow manure.

An analysis by the watchdog group Food & Water Watch released in February found that 15 large California dairies are emitting enough methane to be detected by methane-sniffing satellites and imaging aircraft. Beef ranches produce similar emissions levels.

To reduce those emissions, scientists are experimenting with a variety of feed additives. Some of their research is being commercialized through more than a dozen startups.

The best funded is Swiss agritech startup Mootral, with about $50 million in venture capital and accelerator investments. Mootral’s feed supplement is based on a proprietary mix of compounds from garlic and bioflavonoids derived from citrus, and has been found to reduce methane emissions from cattle up to 38 percent.

Some farmers are finding additional benefits from Mootral beyond emissions reductions. In the U.K., for example, cattle ranchers are gobbling up CowCredits — a unit of emissions reduction that the company developed, but are issued by the nonprofit standard-setting firm Verra. Farmers can sell those credits to subsidize feed costs. 

Mootral has plenty of competition, including Rumin8, an Australian firm using lab-grown red seaweed as a feed additive. According to one academic journal, red seaweed can reduce cows’ methane emissions by up to 90 percent. 

Others include Alga Biosciences (using algae), Blue Ocean Barns (using seaweed), Forever Feed Technologies (growing cattle feed in controlled indoor environments), number8bio ("using fermentation to deliver a carbon negative food production platform"), Symbrosia (seaweed) and Volta Greentech (more seaweed).

None of these has yet achieved commercial scale, but all stand to potentially disrupt how cattle are fed and the emissions they produce.

Changing how cattle graze

Cattle graze on approximately 30 percent of the earth’s land surface, making their interactions with ecological systems of critical importance. After mitigating methane emissions, the next biggest opportunity to reduce cattle’s environmental impact is through a wide range of farming and ranching methods that can improve soil fertility, sequester carbon, increase water infiltration and improve the population of beneficial bugs and microorganisms.

One promising technique is called adaptive multi-paddock (AMP), grazing, a process of feeding cattle in small paddocks — essentially, fenced-off parcels — and moving them frequently to fresh paddocks, giving each plenty of time to recover. The process mimics the way bison and other grazing herds once roamed the land, moving from plot to plot.

A 10-year, $10 million research project, funded in part by McDonald’s and led by documentary filmmaker Peter Byck, aims to measure the climate benefits of AMP grazing. It hasn’t yet released its findings — some of it is still undergoing peer review — but Byck explained to me some benefits of AMP grazing his project has identified.

The same bug that would be a pest if you had a monocrop becomes a valuable member of a community.

Compared to farming parcels next door to AMP grazing sites, "there's 13 percent more carbon in the soil and 9 percent more nitrogen," Byck told me. "And the nitrogen is really the kicker because conventional farmers put nitrogen fertilizer down on their land to grow hay and can spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on those fertilizers." In contrast, AMP farmers "are just utilizing the fertilizer from the animals and have more usable nitrogen in the soil without that massive expense."

Moreover, he said, the soil population of bugs is 33 percent more diverse and balanced. "What that means is there's no pests causing destruction. The same bug that would be a pest if you had a monocrop becomes a valuable member of a community" in AMP-grazing land.

The cattle on AMP farms that Byck and his team studied are also generally healthier and gain more weight than those at traditional farms, he said, in part because healthier soil puts more nutrients in the grass on which cows graze.

Byck has produced a documentary on AMP grazing that is accompanied by a resource library of AMP research.

Byck and other filmmakers — including the recently released documentary "Common Ground," an exquisitely shot film that explores the importance of soil health — have told the stories of farmers and ranchers using AMP techniques. Among the more celebrated is Gabe Brown, whose 5,000-acre farm and ranch near Bismarck, North Dakota, consists of several thousand acres of native perennial rangeland along with perennial pastureland and cropland. He has become one of the foremost advocates of AMP grazing.

AMP is one part of a broader solution set generally referred to as "regenerative grazing." The idea, as the name suggests, is to rebuild depleted ecosystems, from soil carbon to the flora and fauna that can ensure healthy lands for raising cattle.

Cover crops are one key to regeneration. These are usually legumes such as alfalfa and clover, or cereals and grasses such as rye and barley, according to Regenerative Farmers of America. They are planted in fields that would otherwise be bare — in between growing seasons, for example — to increase soil fertility and quality, manage erosion, manage weeds and pests, improve water retention and increase biodiversity and native wildlife.

For cattle ranchers, cover crops can bring economic benefits. Traditionally, hayfields would be plowed and left barren for one to two years before re-planting. Cover crops can extend cows’ grazing period, and findings show them to be more economical even during multiple years of drought, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

These crops can yield nutritious food for both cows and people. In one test, cover crops were planted on 285 acres of old hayfields. Three months later, 6,500 pounds of forage were harvested, compared to just 1,100 pounds of hay on an adjacent field.

A single farmer’s success with new techniques can be highly influential. "There was a lot of skepticism maybe 10 years ago about cover crops until a very good progressive farmer started using them," Debbie Lyons-Blythe, a cattle rancher outside White City, Kansas, told me, speaking of the farmers in her region. "And we had a really dry year, and their crop was the only one of those fields that they'd had cover crops and was the best looking crops around."

Changing the cattle

Cattle can become stressed by heat, which can affect their weight, milk and beef production and fertility — even death in extreme cases. For ranchers in a warming world, that stress can be costly.

A 2022 study published in the medical journal The Lancet calculated between $15 billion and $40 billion of lower milk and meat production per year from heat-stressed cattle, with losses in tropical regions projected to be far greater than in temperate zones. Another study, published in Environmental Research Letters, found that "if future carbon emissions are very high, nine in 10 cows around the world will experience 30 or more days of heat stress per year, and more than three in 10 will experience it all year round by the end of the century."

Some heat can be mitigated by relatively simple methods, such as providing shading, using sprinklers or deploying cooling fans inside barns. But there are limits. As a result, scientists have been working feverishly to breed a heat-resistant cow.

Editing a cow’s innards may seem like science fiction, but it’s coming faster than most people think.

This isn’t exactly new. Animal geneticists have long developed cattle that can adapt and thrive in certain climates. And cattle themselves can adapt to their climate. For example, cattle in the Mongolian region of China have evolved to survive bitter cold winters and to be less susceptible to parasites, bacterial and viral infections.

Heat tolerance is different across each breed of cow and each region of the world. Scientists have developed a heat-load index, or HLI, for more than a dozen types of cows that combines temperature, relative humidity, sunlight and wind speed to help them define the degree of heat stress in livestock.

With the rise of genome editing and other genetic advances, scientists are finding ways to fine-tune and accelerate the process of developing cows for different climates that both emit less methane and can withstand the vagaries of a warmer world.

Last year, for example, scientists at the University of California’s Berkeley, Davis and San Francisco campuses came together on a $70-million initiative that aims in part to cut climate change-causing emissions from cattle by using the genome-editing tool known as CRISPR on microbes in the cows’ gut. The team, which includes a Nobel prize winner in chemistry, is looking at how to engineer a cow to reduce its methane emissions.

Editing a cow’s innards may seem like science fiction, but it’s coming faster than most people think. In 2022, the notoriously cautious U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved gene-edited cattle for use in beef production. It gave the green light to CRISPR-modified cows bred to have slick, short-haired coats known to enable them to adapt to tropical or subtropical environments. Such cattle experience lower body temperatures in heat-stress conditions.

Clearly, tinkering with cattle’s genome is controversial. At the University of California, Davis, for example, geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam is using CRISPR to breed only bulls — it can make a female turn out to be essentially male, with bigger muscles and male genitalia. Male cows grow bigger and faster, producing more edible beef. Van Eenennaam’s work has become a lightning rod among animal welfare activists, some scientists and others. 

It’s unclear if and when cattle ranchers will start using genetically modified cattle, when beef from these cows will be on the market, and whether and when they’ll arrive at a restaurant or supermarket near you.

Beyond these innovations are a number of questions whose answers could transform the future of beef production. How will cattle-raising regions of the world adapt to a warmer world? Will the ravages of severe weather, droughts and wildfire lead more cattle ranchers to hang up their spurs? Will cows be supplanted in part by bison, whose tenderloins, ribeyes and burgers have for years received high marks for their taste and nutritional value as well as for their ecological benefits?

For red meat, one of the most commodified food staples in the world, a full plate of changes is ahead.

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