2023 National Ag Day
Growing a Climate for Tomorrow is the theme for National Ag Day. In Wyoming if you are thinking about agriculture, you are probably thinking about cattle and sheep. And for good reason. Wyoming farmers and ranchers sold over a billion dollars’ worth of livestock in 2020. Grazing livestock is an important part of our state and when you drive across Wyoming, you’ll recognize how wide open our spaces are. These expansive areas are ideal for cows and sheep to graze, which also keeps the land productive for tomorrow’s generations.
Of course, there are some groups who think we should do away with cattle to save our earth. However, these folks have it all wrong. We need to continue to graze livestock to help feed our country and the world. Let’s take a look at geography to see why I say that. Out of all the arable land available for food production in the world, two thirds of it is marginal, meaning that it’s not good enough to raise crops. For Wyoming that portion is even higher. The federal government controls almost half of our surface acres in the state. All of those acres fall into the marginal category and are used by grazing animals. But even outside of those federally owned acreages, there are a lot of private lands that are grazed as well. What would it mean to our world if we suddenly removed food production from two thirds of the land area? It would result in a lot of hungry folks out there.
Another thing many of these group’s overlook is what Dr. Frank Mitleohner from UC-Davis has pointed out about utilization. Ruminant animals (cattle and sheep) can utilize plants that we humans cannot. These animals take the plants and “up cycle” them into a product we humans can then consume. For instance, corn, which is used for human and animal consumption, also produces corn stalks. Humans can’t eat corn stalks. Cows can. I’m a big almond fan. However, people can’t eat the husks from almonds. Cows can. In addition to utilizing plants that humans can’t consume, these animals also do something else. They produce organic fertilizer, which farmers and ranchers have been using to improve soil fertility for a long time.
Dr. Mitleohner also explains that livestock are part of a closed carbon cycle. They eat plants that are converted into meat and fertilizer. The carbon dioxide they breathe out, along with methane their ruminant stomachs produce, goes into the atmosphere and then those molecules are taken up by plants.
It is estimated there were 60 million bison in the United States at the end of the 18th century. These bison were also ruminants which grazed the same lands cattle currently graze. Like cattle, they produced carbon and methane. In 2020, there were about 31 million cattle in the United States. These cattle grazed these marginal areas and from what I can learn produced fewer emissions than the bison would have produced. Ranchers have been striving for decades to produce more meat from less forage. Cattle have gradually become more efficient at converting these forages to meat, and that trend will continue.
In 2020, the EPA reported that agriculture contributed 10.6% of total U.S. emissions. Keep in mind that 10.6% is the total amount for agriculture; livestock is a percentage of that subset. Although the number of emissions produced is small compared to other sectors of the economy, we in agriculture will continue to work on efficiency.
So go ahead and have that hamburger from your favorite restaurant. You will be taking advantage of a process that has been going on forever, where two thirds of the grass and forbs grown on our grazing land can be used to feed a hungry world.