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Cattle DO Cause Climate Change

Cattle Do Cause Climate Change

But not in the way you might think….

Let’s talk about US Beef production and its impact on our environment, our world, and our future.

During their entire life cycle from pasture to plate (that includes feed production, fuel, electricity, etc.) beef cattle make up 3.3% of US Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Compare that to transportation (25.3%) and electricity (29.7%) which make up over 55% of the United States GHG emissions, cattle are barely a drop in the bucket. US Beef only accounts for .47% of global GHG emissions. Yup, that’s right, less than half of one percent!

Where do those GHGs come from?

Cows don’t fart…

Methane, the main GHG attributed to cattle is actually from cow belches (and somewhat manure production). Cows consume plants which are full of carbon. Cattle release excess carbon in the form of methane (CH4) by expelling it through their mouth. This methane enters the atmosphere where, in about 10 years time, it is oxidized to carbon dioxide (CO2). The carbon dioxide is then reabsorbed by plants during respiration, or absorbed by the ocean. This natural cycle operates perfectly, if it stays balanced. So what is throwing it off?

Fossil fuel production, which dredges up carbon stored deep in the earth, and other sources of emissions are throwing the carbon balance off. This off-kilter scale is exhibited by the large contribution of GHG emissions by the transportation and electricity industries, the main users of fossil fuel. 1 gallon of fossil fuel produced equals 20 pounds of carbon dioxide released into the environment!

So yes, cows do release methane. Cows release methane because of their unique digestive system set up, a system that makes them incredibly valuable to sustainable food production.

Ruminate on This!


Cattle eating Hemp Byproducts (Photo Credit: Justin Moran)

Did you know that cattle produce 19% more human-edible protein than they eat in their lifetime? Cattle are upcyclers! They take nutrients that are in a human-inedible form, like grasses, and turn it into one of the top nutrient sources available to us! Cattle also recycle byproducts from other industries. Rations (diets formulated for cattle) often include materials from other industries that otherwise would have gone to the landfill. These ingredients could be citrus pulp from orange juice production, cotton seed hulls from cotton production, hemp fiber from hemp oil extraction, distillers grains from alcohol production, even candy that is deemed unmarketable (spilled Skittles) can be fed to cattle! Cattle take resources that would otherwise be sent to the landfill and turn it into human-edible protein. Since landfills cause about 2.2% of GHG emissions in the US, cattle are really working to reduce GHG every day!


Cattle eating a ration diet.

The small amount of products that are fed to cattle that are human-edible (mainly corn), are used to increase the sustainability of cattle. Grain-fed cattle reach market weights faster thereby using less resources, like land and water, in their lifetime. Grain-finished cattle show between a 18.5% to 67.5% lower carbon footprint when compared to grass-finished beef. These differences can be contributed to the high energy feed allowing for faster growth, shorter time in the finishing phase, and higher carcass weights at harvest, meaning more beef with less inputs! Grass-finished beef can reduce their carbon footprint by 42% if they use forage from grasslands that sequester carbon.


Use Less, Waste Less. It’s What We Do!
  • Per pound of beef carcass weight, cattle only consume 2.6 pounds of grain, which is similar to pork and poultry.
  • Corn used to feed beef cattle only represents approximately 9 percent of harvested corn grain in the U.S., or 8 million acres.
  • On average, it takes 308 gallons of water, which is recycled, to produce a pound of boneless beef. In total, water use by beef is only around 5 percent of U.S. water withdrawals.
  • Total fossil energy input to U.S. beef cattle production is equivalent to 0.7 percent of total national consumption of fossil fuels.
It’s Not All About The Beef

Cattle don’t just provide us with high quality protein source. Byproducts from beef production are all around us, in products we use every single day. 99% of every carcass is used, whether for meat or other products.


From one cow hide you can get

12 basketballs

144 baseballs

20 footballs

18 volleyballs

18 soccer balls

or 12 baseball gloves!


Did you know gelatin comes from connective tissues of the beef animal? Gelatin is included in products like Jell-O, gum, fruit snacks, and marshmallows! These industries rely on the beef industry to create their product.

Medical Products

Stearic Acid, found in fatty acids of the cattle are used to create many medical products. Ointments for burns and first aid creams also use products from cattle. Even the adhesive part of bandages come from cattle! Cattle are also used to harvest anti-rejection medications for transplant patients, and for insulin for diabetics.


Did you know asphalt contains a binding agent from beef cattle? Your tires contain stearic acid to maintain their elasticity, antifreeze contains glycerol, even your brake fluid contains animal byproducts! Luxury vehicles with leather seats are utilizing cattle every day.

Cattle are an essential part of our every day life, not only for the beef, but also for the thousands of products they are incorporated into! Learn about more products made from cattle here:

Ecosystem Services

US Ranching Ecosystem Services Economic Value America has 770 million acres of rangeland unsuitable for crop cultivation but perfect for cattle. Rangeland and pasture land create valuable open spaces for humans to enjoy for recreation and outdoor activities. Ecosystem services provided by cattle ranching in the U.S. has an estimated economic value of $14,813,875,051. That’s $14 billion dollars that American ranches will never see. For every pound of beef that ranches craft for consumers approximately $0.86 worth of ecosystem services is generated. Learn more about ecosystem services here.


US Beef versus Global Beef

Beef from the United States is by far the most productive and efficient form of beef production. The United States creates 18% of the worlds beef products with only 8% of the global cattle herd. This productivity can be attributed to higher quality feeds, less heat stress, improved animal genetics and reproduction, and faster growth. If US beef production practices were instilled on a global scale, the global herd would reduce by 62% while still producing the same amount of beef! Us Beef contributes between 50 and 250 units of CO2 equivalent per pound of protein, while continents like Africa and India produce 1000 to 2500 CO2 equivalent per pound of protein. US Beef production results in 10 to 50 times less CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere. 

So..Cattle Do Cause Climate Change?

Yes! Cattle cause climate change in the right direction! Cattle, and beef production as whole, have a positive impact on the social, economic, and environmental aspects of the United States. It takes 36% less cattle to produce the same amount of beef now as it did in 1975. We are getting more and more efficient every year, which is great since we’ll need to produce 70% more food to feed the world in 2050! Ranches are continuously sequestering carbon, allowing for groundwater recharge and providing open spaces for wildlife habitats and recreational activities while simultaneously crafting the worlds top protein choice. If every American were to eliminate beef from the diet, only 1.9% of GHG emissions would be eliminated. In reality, emissions from increased crop production or other animal products could easily eliminate any chance of reduced GHG emissions.

So What Can We Do?

If eliminating beef from the diet (or meat in general) won’t help reduce climate change, what will? Did you know that 20% of edible beef produced in the United States is wasted every year? That’s millions of pounds of beef heading straight to the landfill every single year! Food waste is a major issue, between 30 & 40% of food is wasted in the United States. Wasted food goes to landfills where its decomposition increases GHG emissions, in fact landfills account for roughly 2.2% of the US GHG emissions. If just 50% less beef was wasted annually, beef sustainability would increase by 10%!

Food waste campaigns have been active for decades.

Wasting less food can be a major contribution every American can start today!

Learn more about the FACTS behind sustainable beef production here!

17 Comments on “Cattle DO Cause Climate Change

  1. WOW, really well written. Great information in a concise direct way. I would like to sent it to all the Family, Consumer Science teachers in Montana that I deal with. If it’s alright with you. Thanks for the great twist on a current topic.

  2. This article would be significantly more useful if sources were cited and linked to for the bold typeface statements…

    • Hi John! Sources are linked in the headings of each section and at the end of the article (NCBA research website). But to make it easier I will provide more visible links throughout the article. Thanks for your feedback!

  3. Alicia, Excellent work! Keep spreading the message to help change the inaccurate perception that the mainstream has. Thank you!

  4. Can you expand on/provide a link to your sentence: ” Grass-finished beef can reduce their carbon footprint by 42% if they use forage from grasslands that sequester carbon.” Sounds like an important topic that I’d like to know more about.

  5. Your first argument about methane is missing something. You bring up poundage of CO2 from fossil fuels but forgot to compare that to how much methane cows produce and correlate that to an estimate of CO2 ultimately produced. You might want to clarify the output of methane from cattle and convert that to a tonnage or poundage of CO2, so you can make a more fair comparison.

    Otherwise it was though provoking. 🙂

  6. Actually, Mr. Hall reduction in demand for meat will have little impact on GHG emissions since US cattle are only responsible for .47% of global GHG emissions and since cattle are 15-18 months before reaching market weight changes in demand take years to influence actual cattle numbers. As the blog explains, encouraging global practices to become as efficient as US beef production (which means globally increasing the demand for beef) will not only provide high quality protein at an affordable cost worldwide but also has the potential to reduce GHG emissions on a global scale and reduce the global herd numbers by 62%.

    We suggest you take a peak at our other blog Meatless Monday Can’t Change the World to get an idea of some real world action you can take to make a significant impact on your personal GHG emissions (without sacrificing the taste & nutrition that meat provides)!

  7. Outstanding explanations!
    I really value such an article. I am from Mexico where we are struggling to improve both efficiency and productivity regarding cattle and similar businesses. This will be very helpful to do so!
    Thank you!

  8. I didn’t see it referenced here, but I highly recommend the documentary movie Sacred Cow.

    • Thanks for the suggestion! I watched it today and it is a good documentary to show the realistic side of agriculture! It had some really interesting concepts and I enjoyed watching it

  9. I’m just seeing this article but I want to say great job! The beef industry appreciates you, thank you for being an advocate! We need people like you more now than ever.