Colorado State University researchers are partnering with the American Hereford Association to support cattle producers and the beef industry in finding sustainable solutions to environmental and economic challenges.
The new research aims to enhance understanding of genetic differences in seedstock relative to enteric methane production and nitrogen excretion while identifying selection tools that can help reduce beef’s carbon and environmental footprint.
“We’re excited to begin this cooperative research agreement with Colorado State University,” says Jack Ward, executive vice president of the American Hereford Association, one of the largest beef breed associations in the U.S. “It leverages decades of research and data collected by AHA members aimed at characterizing genetics associated with production efficiency, which plays a key role in environmental and economic sustainability.”
Environmental and Economic Challenges
Direct emissions from the animal agriculture sector account for 3.8% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Enteric methane accounts for approximately 27% of methane emissions in the U.S.
Methane emission, as a genetic trait in cattle, appears to be moderately heritable with genetic correlations to economically relevant production traits, such as measures of growth, dry matter intake and various estimates of feed efficiency.
Worldwide attention is also focusing more intently on nitrogen — a byproduct of rumen fermentation. Previous research suggests genetics play a significant role in nitrogen excretion by cattle, and when selected for, an individual animal’s environmental footprint can be reduced.
“We know genetic improvement of our industry is driven by gains made in the seedstock sector. One only needs to look at changes in carcass meat yield and quality over the last two decades to realize the potential for improvements in seedstock genetics to transform the entire beef industry,” says Animal Sciences Professor Mark Enns, a beef cattle geneticist and key member of the research team.
“Often, we hear criticism leveled at the beef industry regarding greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of cattle on the environment, but with little context,” Enns says. “Cattle also sequester carbon and contribute to environmental health. This project will contribute to the beef cattle industry’s goal of demonstrating carbon neutrality by 2040.”
Given the Hereford breed’s inherent genetic advantages associated with production efficiency, Ward says documenting the relationship between traits associated with efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions is logical next step for the breed and the industry.
“Beef industry stakeholders including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association have committed to improving the environmental impact of U.S. cattle production. This project aims to develop a selection tool for the American Hereford Association and the broader cattle industry that helps producers identify genetics that will have reduced greenhouse gas emissions without sacrificing animal productivity,” says Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of CSU AgNext, a pioneering research collaborative developing sustainable solutions for animal agriculture.
By leveraging existing animal performance data and monitoring animal emissions, Stackhouse-Lawson explains the goal is to identify genetic traits that influence environmental emissions from individual animals and then develop selection indices that can be used to reduce the environmental impact of cattle, while maintaining, and ideally improving economic returns to producers.
“This project will also position the American Hereford Association as a sustainability leader in the beef industry through the development of genetic selection tools that can identify and inform breeders of genetics that meet climate goals without sacrificing quality, performance, and efficiency,” says Stackhouse-Lawson.
Further, Enns notes the project has potential to pave new paths of revenue for cattle producers. These could include such things as verified sustainable production claims, in addition to commonly discussed carbon credits.
Supporting the Beef Industry
The U.S. beef cattle industry has a long history of demonstrating extraordinary gains in efficiency over time, using genetics, technology and management to produce more beef with fewer cows and less land.
“This research will help us identify ways to magnify the gains the industry has already achieved,” Ward says.
“CSU is involved in this project because we are passionate about beef production and the beef industry, and the societal benefits it brings from the upcycling of human-inedible plant materials and byproducts into high-quality protein,” Enns says. “From a genetic improvement standpoint, CSU has a long history of new trait development and delivery of selection tools to the industry. As such, we feel we have much to contribute in this realm, striving to produce cattle that meet consumer demands, yet have a smaller environmental footprint.”