Study: Replacing cropland with cattle pasture can reduce greenhouse gas emissions

A cattle crossing sign near a farm in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
A cattle crossing sign near a farm in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | April 20, 2016

A recent study by researchers at Iowa State University found that an increase in cattle production can actually lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The study found that cattle production contributes fewer GHG emissions to the atmosphere than row crop production. Additionally, an increase in forage and pasture land means more roots in the ground holding the soil in place and also allows for the ground to store a greater amount of carbon, according to Dr. Mark Rasmussen a professor of animal science at ISU and co-author of the study

“The paper shows that bringing more cattle back to Iowa and, as a consequence, adding more land for forage and perennial grasses, would actually be beneficial in the context of greenhouse gas emissions that result from agricultural activities,” he said. “It’s a way of putting more carbon away than you’re putting into the atmosphere.”

Dr. Rasmussen said a greater emphasis on cattle production would lead to other environmental benefits such as improved water quality because of stronger soil and less runoff. An increase in grazing land can also provide a new habitat for pollinating insects.

However, Dr. Rasmussen did acknowledge some of the challenges involved in increased cattle production such as converting cropland to pasture and investing in new facilities and other equipment. He added that pasture must be properly managed and that overgrazing can lead to soil erosion.

The study was published in the March-April edition of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.

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