Potential mitigation of midwest grass-finished beef production emissions with soil carbon sequestration in the United States of America

Jason Edward Rowntree, Rebecca Ryals, Marcia DeLonge, W. Richard Teague, Marilia Chiavegato, Peter Byck, Tong Wang, Sutie Xu


Beef production can be environmentally detrimental due in large part to associated enteric methane (CH4) production, which contributes to climate change. However, beef production in well-managed grazing systems can aid in soil carbon sequestration (SCS), which is often ignored when assessing beef production impacts on climate change. To estimate the carbon footprint and climate change mitigation potential of upper Midwest grass-finished beef production systems, we conducted a partial life cycle assessment (LCA) comparing two grazing management strategies: 1) a non-irrigated, lightly-stocked (1.0 AU/ha), high-density (100,000 kg LW/ha) system (MOB) and 2) an irrigated, heavily-stocked (2.5 AU/ha), low-density (30,000 kg LW/ha) system (IRG).  In each system, April-born steers were weaned in November, winter-backgrounded for 6 months and grazed until their endpoint the following November, with average slaughter age of 19 months and a 295 kg hot carcass weight.  As the basis for the LCA, we used two years of data from Lake City Research Center, Lake City, MI. We included greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with enteric CH4, soil N2O and CH4 fluxes, alfalfa and mineral supplementation, and farm energy use.  We also generated results from the LCA using the enteric emissions equations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). We evaluated a range of potential rates of soil carbon (C) loss or gain of up to 3 Mg C ha-1 yr-1. Enteric CH4 had the largest impact on total emissions, but this varied by grazing system. Enteric CH4 composed 62 and 66% of emissions for IRG and MOB, respectively, on a land basis. Both MOB and IRG were net GHG sources when SCS was not considered. Our partial LCA indicated that when SCS potential was included, each grazing strategy could be an overall sink. Sensitivity analyses indicated that soil in the MOB and IRG systems would need to sequester 1 and 2 Mg C ha-1 yr-1 for a net zero GHG footprint, respectively.  IPCC model estimates for enteric CH4 were similar to field estimates for the MOB system, but were higher for the IRG system, suggesting that 0.62 Mg C ha-1 yr-1 greater SCS would be needed to offset the animal emissions in this case.

Key words: Grass-finishing beef, GHG emissions, Soil organic carbon sequestration

Data of the article

First received : 30 March 2016 | Last revision received : 28 November 2016
Accepted : 05 December 2016 | Published online : 23 December 2016
URN: nbn:de:hebis:34-2016111451469

Full Text:



Bannink, A., Smits, M. C. J., Kebreab, E., Mills, J. A., Ellis, J. L., Klop, A., Dijkstra, J. (2010). Simulating the effects of grassland management and grass ensiling on methane emission from lactating cows. The Journal of Agricultural Science, 148(01), 55-72.

Buskirk, D. (2002). Upper Midwest Beef Cow Mineral-vitamin Nutrition. Michigan State University Extension. Retrieved from http://msue.anr.msu.edu/uploads/236/58572/UpperMidwestBeefCow.pdf

Camargo, G. G., Ryan, M. R., & Richard, T. L. (2013). Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from crop production using the farm energy analysis tool. BioScience, 63(4), 263-273.

Capper, J. L. (2012). Is the grass always greener? Comparing the environmental impact of conventional, natural and grass-fed beef production systems. Animals, 2(2), 127-143.

Capper, J. L., & Bauman, D. E. (2013). The role of productivity in improving the environmental sustainability of ruminant production systems. Annu. Rev. Anim. Biosci., 1(1), 469-489.

Chiavegato, M. B., Rowntree, J. E., Carmichael, D., & Powers, W. J. (2015a). Enteric methane from lactating beef cows managed with high-and low-input grazing systems. Journal of Animal Science, 93(3), 1365-1375.

Chiavegato, M. B., Powers, W. J., Carmichael, D., & Rowntree, J. E. (2015b). Pasture-derived greenhouse gas emissions in cow-calf production systems. Journal of Animal Science, 93(3), 1350-1364.

Conant, R. T., Paustian, K., & Elliott, E. T. (2001). Grassland management and conversion into grassland: effects on soil carbon. Ecological Applications, 11(2), 343-355.

Delgado, J. A., Groffman, P.M., Nearing, M.A., Goddard, T., Reicosky, D., Lal, R., Kitchen, N.R., Rice, C. W., Towery, D., and Salon, P. (2011). Conservation practices to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 66 (4), 118A-129A.

DeRamus, H. A., Clement, T. C., Giampola, D. D., & Dickison, P. C. (2003). Methane emissions of beef cattle on forages. Journal of Environmental Quality, 32(1), 269-277.

EPA. (2008). Direct Emissions from Mobile Combustion Sources. Retrieved from http://ulpeis.anl.gov/documents/dpeis/references/pdfs/EPA_2008_Climate_leaders.pdf

EPA. (2014). Emission Factors for Greenhouse Gas Inventories. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-07/documents/emission-factors_2014.pdf

Eshel, G., Shepon, A., Makov, T., & Milo, R. (2014). Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive 179 nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States. Proceedings of the National 180 Academy of Sciences, 111(33), 11996-12001. 181

Gerrish, J. (2004). Management-intensive Grazing: the Grassroots of Grass Farming. Ridgeland, MO: Green Park Press.

International Panel on Climate Change. (2006). Vol. 4: Agriculture, forestry and other land use. In Eggleston H.S., Buendia L., Miwa K., Ngara T. & Tanabe K. (Eds.), Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. Hayama, Japan: IGES

Johnson, K., Huyler, M., Westberg, H., Lamb, B., & Zimmerman, P. (1994). Measurement of methane emissions from ruminant livestock using a sulfur hexafluoride tracer technique. Environmental science & technology, 28(2), 359-362.

Liebig, M. A., Gross, J. R., Kronberg, S. L., & Phillips, R. L. (2010). Grazing management contributions to net global warming potential: A long-term evaluation in the Northern Great Plains. Journal of Environmental Quality, 39(3), 799-809.

Lupo, C. D., Clay, D. E., Benning, J. L., & Stone, J. J. (2013). Life-cycle assessment of the beef cattle production system for the Northern Great Plains, USA. Journal of Environmental Quality, 42(5), 1386-1394.

Machmuller, M. B., Kramer, M. G., Cyle, T. K., Hill, N., Hancock, D., & Thompson, A. (2015). Emerging land use practices rapidly increase soil organic matter. Nature communications, 6, Article Number: 6995. doi: 10.1038/ncomms7995.

Mangino, J., Peterson, K., & Jacobs, H. (2003). Development of an emissions model to estimate methane from enteric fermentation in cattle. In Lorang, P. A. (Ed.), 12th International Emission Inventory Conference- Emission Inventories- Applying New Technologies. San Diego, CA: US EPA. p. 11-21

McCaughey, W. P., Wittenberg, K., & Corrigan, D. (1999). Impact of pasture type on methane production by lactating beef cows. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 79(2), 221-226.

Murphy, Bill. (1998). Greener Pasture on Your Side of the Fence: Better Farming Voisin Management-Intensive Grazing (4th ed.). Colchester, VT: Arriba Publishing.

Pavao-Zuckerman, M. A., Waller, J. C., Ingle, T., & Fribourg, H. A. (1999). Methane emissions of beef cattle grazing tall fescue pastures at three levels of endophyte infestation. Journal of Environmental Quality, 28(6), 1963-1969.

Pelletier, N., Pirog, R., & Rasmussen, R. (2010). Comparative life cycle environmental impacts of three beef production strategies in the Upper Midwestern United States. Agricultural Systems, 103(6), 380-389.

Pinares-Patiño, C. S., Baumont, R., & Martin, C. (2003). Methane emissions by Charolais cows grazing a monospecific pasture of timothy at four stages of maturity. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 83(4), 769-777.

Ripple, W. J., Smith, P., Haberl, H., Montzka, S. A., McAlpine, C., & Boucher, D. H. (2014). Ruminants, climate change and climate policy. Nature Climate Change, 4(1), 2-5.

Stackhouse-Lawson, K. R., Rotz, C. A., Oltjen, J. W., & Mitloehner, F. M. (2012). Carbon footprint and ammonia emissions of California beef production systems. Journal of Animal Science, 90(12), 4641-4655.

Stewart, A. A., Alemu, A. W., Ominski, K. H., Wilson, C. H., Tremorin, D. G., Wittenberg, K. M., & Janzen, H. H. (2014). Whole-farm greenhouse gas emissions from a backgrounding beef production system using an observation-based and model-based approach. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 94(3), 463-477.

Tang, S., Zhang, Y., Guo, Y., Zhai, X., Wilkes, A., Han, G., & Wang, C. (2015). Changes of soil CO2 flux under different stocking rates during spring-thaw period in a northern desert steppe, China. Atmospheric Environment, 122, 343-348.

Teague, W. R., Apfelbaum, S., Lal, R., Kreuter, U. P., Rowntree, J., Davies, C. A., & Wang, F. (2016). The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 71(2), 156-164.

Teague, W. R., Dowhower, S. L., Baker, S. A., Haile, N., DeLaune, P. B., & Conover, D. M. (2011). Grazing management impacts on vegetation, soil biota and soil chemical, physical and hydrological properties in tall grass prairie. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 141(3), 310-322.

Teague, R., Provenza, F., Kreuter, U., Steffens, T., & Barnes, M. (2013). Multi-paddock grazing on rangelands: why the perceptual dichotomy between research results and rancher experience? Journal of Environmental Management, 128, 699-717.

USDA. (2015). Crop Production 2014 Summary. Retrieved from http://www.usda.gov/nass/PUBS/TODAYRPT/cropan15.pdf

Wang, T., Teague, R., Park, S.C., & Bevers, S. 2015. GHG Mitigation and Profitability Potential of Different Grazing Systems in Southern Great Plain. Sustainability, 7, 13500-13521.


  • There are currently no refbacks.




 Google Scholar H5 index 5 


The contributions of the peer reviewers for the journal are acknowledged in the 


Sponsoring Organisations

Logo Agrarekologie Uni Kassel