Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Grass fed beef and methane

BelchI'm sure you've all heard the argument - raising cattle for beef is a high green house gas emitting activity. It breaks down to about 19 kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted for every kilogram of beef eaten. [1] But what about the other end? The methane emitted from all that cattle belching and farting is high as well. Cows emit between 2.5 and 4.7 ounces of methane for each pound of beef they produce, depending on production. The big problem with methane is that it has roughly 23 times the global-warming potential of CO2. [2]

Another issue I'm sure you've read is that grass fed cattle are even worse for the environment than grain or corn fed cattle because they emit even more methane. In some studies, they suggest that grass fed cattle emit 50% more methane. The reason, according to Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is that "it’s related to the much higher volumes of feed throughput and associated methane and nitrous-oxide emissions." Additionally, most pastures were highly managed, and subject to "periodic renovations and also fertilization." Pelletier also added that, with grass-fed cattle, "there is also a high [grass] trampling rate. So the actual land area that you need to maintain magnifies that difference". [3]

Sounds like a pretty stinky problem for proponents of grass fed beef. Well, Mother Earth News recently published an article on grass fed beef and stated that:

There are studies to suggest grain produces less methane, but those studies, by and large, compare conventional pastures with feedlots. However, conventional pastures contain high-fiber, low-quality forage, which produces more methane. On the other hand, studies of rotational grazing have shown decreases of as much as 45 percent in methane production, when compared with conventional pastures. All studies seem to agree cows produce less methane when nutrition is best, and the very reason for rotational grazing is to improve forage quality.

So what's a concerned consumer to do? If you are going to eat beef, make sure that you choose meat from cows that are raised in a sustainable manner. Get to know your producer and find out how the cattle is raised, if it is grass raised or if it is just grass finished. Finally, make sure that the grass fed beef you choose is from a farm that practices rotational grazing. But, really, when it comes down to it, what's the best thing to do? Eat less beef or none at all.


Anonymous said...

So what about dairy cows, say, pasture-fed dairy cows and their milk? Or cheese from said milk? Don't those cows fart and belch methane? Am I to stop eating cheese/drinking milk? Or does a different rationale apply here?Right now, I know my raw milk in glass bottles comes from free-ranging, pasture-fed (hopefully also from unfertilized, sustainable pastures) that are allowed to keep their horns.

Hanley Tucks said...

Actually, proper studies, instead of these half-arsed ones, have shown that it depends on what you feed the beasts.

There are certain grasses and grains which will cause certain breeds to create more or less gas. It varies, and local climate comes into it, too. Who on Earth can keep track of all that? Not me. Let's focus on what we can control - how much we eat.

To reduce the greenhouse impact of meat, you can get meat which produces less emissions, or you can just eat less meat. Since you're not likely to be really sure just how much that cow farted before someone put captive bolt gun against its head, it's easier to just eat less.

Just eat less meat. The average Aussie or American consumes over 100kg (220lbs) of meat and fish a year. That's more than we need for good health, in fact it's a leading contributor to heart disease.

For animal welfare, eat more fresh fruit and vegies, and less meat and fish.

For health, eat more fresh fruit and vegies, and less meat and fish.

For the environment, eat more fresh fruit and vegies, and less meat and fish.

For your grocery bills, eat more fresh fruit and vegies, and less meat and fish.

Aim at about half a pound a week. Have meat as the side of the dish, or a flavouring, rather than the main.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Kiashu - eat less meat! I'm a vegetarian; I certainly don't expect everyone to make that decision, but I do think people should eat meat responsibly. While many argue that people are omnivores, I think we have been shown that we function best on mainly a plant based diet. The healthiest people in the world are in areas that eat a diet high in fish and plants, the second healthiest, mostly just plants.

Segwyne said...

I have to say that I get annoyed at all the folks who point out that meat-eaters contribute to climate change because of cow farts. How about our own human farts? We have tripled the human population on this planet since the 30's. Don't those extra people's farts contribute to climate change? How about dog farts, cat farts, deer farts, rabbit farts, hamster farts, porcupine farts? Do fish fart? or birds? How do their farts contribute to climate change? The same meat-to-plant ratio that our ancestors thrived on for millenia (admittedly not the same ratio as today) will contribute to climate change simply because there are three times as many of us, not because cows have suddenly started farting.

Yes, we Americans should reduce the quantity of meat we eat in general, and we should switch to sustainably raised meat, but I don't believe we should be using farts as our rationale. We could make the argument that we shouldn't eat plants either because plants help keep climate change in check (why do people think trees are the only plants capable of this?) and therefore as we harvest plants for food, we are effectively removing that plant from being able to fight climate change. I think that argument is just as valid as saying we shouldn't eat meat because cows fart.

I'm sorry Crunchy, usually I love reading your posts, but this one just rubbed me the wrong way.

Farmer's Daughter said...

In terms of humanely raised beef, grass is the way to go. They're not subject to all the negative effects of a grain diet. For me, that's the bottom line.

It seems rotational grazing makes the most sense, based on the data you provided. However, I think it's unfair to state that grass-fed beef are worse on the environment than grain-fed. What about the impact on the cows of feed lots? I'm simply not willing to believe that treating cows so poorly is ever going to be better for the biosphere. After all, those abused cows are part of the biosphere.

Kelli - Our Local Life said...

Michael Pollan's, "eat food, not too much, mostly plants" is such a great guide. Yes, everything farts, and the presence of all us animals has an impact on the earth. But if we all ate mostly plants the negative impact of all us people would be greatly lessened. Thank goodness for the vegans who help mitigate for those of us who refuse to change our eating habits and eat less meat, even in the face of all the evidence that it's better for the planet, its people, and your own personal pocketbook.

e4 said...

This research sounds suspiciously like industrial manure production.

Cows have been farting since before they were called cows. They've also been grazing and trampling pasture that long.

This passage just kills me: "Additionally, most pastures were highly managed, and subject to "periodic renovations and also fertilization." Pelletier also added that, with grass-fed cattle, "there is also a high [grass] trampling rate.

What the hell pastures were they studying? Highly managed? Compared to what? A cornfield? Give me a break. A suburban lawn? Not even close. Around here, it's occasional lime, and some winter or spring seeding. I don't know of any pastured beef operations in these parts who are fertilizing their fields. Maybe Nova Scotia isn't the best place for grazing cattle?

Another huge difference between a grass-fed and feedlot beef that doesn't seem to be considered here is that feedlot cows are raised in incredibly high concentrations. One might even say unnaturally high. Unhealthily high. Inhumanely high.

Can we really compare a cow grazing a couple acres (possibly the same acres also shared by sheep, goats, chickens or other critters, since they don't all eat the same plants) with thousands of cows standing in their own shit eating food their digestive system isn't really designed for?

How about we do "pollutants per acre" comparison instead of a "farts per cow" comparison?

Zeroing in on cow farts seems like a huge red herring.

scifichick said...

We just eat less meat as a rule. I think any study can be tailored to anyone's needs and you have to use some common sense to make your decisions. It's just like any statistic can be made to look to support any point. And now with the focus on the environment, it seems like there are studies every day that are mostly confusing. This study seems to say that grass-fed beef is just as bad as feed-lot one, so you might as well just buy a feed-lot one, at least it's cheaper. I just don't believe that. We buy our beef from local farms that pasture their cows. And we just don't eat so much of it.

Mike said...

I am of the opinion that the "cow fart dilemma" is a bit of a red herring. We can measure the differences in methane emissions as much as we want, but we're missing the big picture.

A few principles that guide my meat purchasing are as follows:

1. Eating the whole animal

Yes, yes, there are lots of parts that get tossed and I don't actually use a proportion of organ meat that would correspond to this purpose, but there are some good partial steps, like using whole poultry instead of a package of breasts (a "family pack" of ten chicken breasts means 5 chickens... those other parts gotta go somewhere). I love a nice roast chicken and always process the leftovers either by freezing portions for bring-to-work lunches or making soup. I ALWAYS make and preserve lots of broth either by freezing or canning (safety note: pressure canner is mandatory for this process, please don't die). Freezing broth in ice cube trays gives you lots of flexibility in using it in your other cooking.

Using the whole animal also means a good mix of cuts and letting your selections spur some creativity in your cooking. My friends and I just split a hog five ways and now each have about 40lbs of pork in the freezer, leading to some wonderful recipe-swapping to answer questions like how exactly to go through 8lbs of ground pork in six months or the best shoulder roast recipes.

2. Food miles add up faster than cow farts

I get my chicken and eggs from within 40 miles of home or closer, depending on which farmer I go to at the market. My pork is from about 60 miles away and my beef travels about 100 miles to my table (I'm ignoring the side trips to the butchers for simplicity). In each case, the food for the animals is grown on or adjacent to the farm where they are raised. Localizing feed production, meat production and distribution probably more than compensates for extra-farty beef.

A related item on transportation is the willingness to buy in bulk, directly from farmers on their delivery schedule. If I am willing to place a pre-order and then wait for them to bring animals for butchering, instead of expecting the 24-hour convenience of a huge supermarket, I can get really high quality meat affordably and sustainably.

3. Sustainable agriculture is key

I mentioned in the point above that the farmers I buy from grow their own feed on the farm. They are also good stewards of their land and animals and committed to preserving the ongoing viability of their production.

Sorry for the overly-lengthy discussion, and yes, yes, I realize that not everyone lives so close to their meat sources as I do.

LatigoLiz said...

Not sure if these are all grass-fed or not, but Plateau farms are turning poop into power

SusanB said...

Crunchy -- You say make sure your beef is "grass fed" not just "grass finished" (unless I read wrong). The difference is between grain-finished (fed on grass and then finished for slaughter on grain) and grass-finished. You want to make sure your meat is grass-fed, grass-finished not grass-fed, grain-finished. Just a grass fed label can include (unless the USDA has changed things recently) grain-finished and grass-fed in confinement. So in the end, I agree, knowing your farmer/supplier is the best way.

LatigoLiz said...

SusanB, partially correct. Every farm is different. Some use alfalfa hay to finish and that is still acceptable in a certified grass-fed operation. How they are “finished” has a great affect hon how the mat turns out for the consumer.

Here is a great place for info, if no one has seen it yet:

Eat Wild

And here is another great source of info for those in the Seattle area:

West Valley Beef

We recently took a class from WSU Extension on starting a beef operation and it was thoroughly engrossing!

Rosa said...

One of the benefits of eating pastured meat (buffalo, goat and chicken as well as cow) is that it's so expensive, you end up eating less of it anyway, which is going to lower the emissions of your diet.

Seems like the question of lowering impact is more for farmers than consumers - especially since farmers can know what's growing in their pastures and what breed mixes of cows they're raising and what affect their practices are having on soil and water- and like Kiashu said, the real job of consumers is to just consume less high impact-stuff.

Eco Yogini said...

Well- I think the main problem you have here is that Crunchy; you didn't actually try to investigate the research. Depending on a "Science News" media coverage of a Conference Presentation.
When you delve deeper- Nathan Pelletier was actually giving a Presentation at AAAS: American Association of the Advancement of Sciences Annual Meeting.
So- NOT an actual study- just an interview with Nathan regarding his "teams" research findings in the past.
First cue when quoting "scientific" data- read the article yourself. If you can't determine the methods or efficacy of research, then don't comment.
Having access to Dal's journal database I thought I'd try and see exactly what research (without actually having access to Mr Pelletier's ppt presentation) he based his comments on.
Unfortunately Mr Pelletier's published studies focus on Aquaculture and NOT specifically agriculture. which makes more sense for Nova Scotia.

A little deeper and we find out that Mr Pelletier is actually a PhD student... and not a professor or PhD researcher at Dalhousie. His presentation has to do with NSSRC, which is a Canadian organization that grants scholarships to PhD and Master's students to do research. In return- they are typically required to give presentations.

It would seem that there are some pretty interesting research articles regarding corn/soy/grain carbon and energy costs comparing organic farming to traditional farming, but nothing specific to cows. Here's a prof's page with some of his co-articles attached:

Usually these types of conferences and presentations are precursors to research that the individual is trying to get published or in the process of publishing. Without actually having access to his ppt, there is no way of knowing exactly what he is basing his comments on. Also- I tend to avoid "science" based media coverage- they tend to skew researchers comments and give misleading interpretations of scientific results.

I think this was a little much.

Laurie said...

Interesting post (and comments).

We've talked about vegetarianism and it's benefit of adopting a diet that is meat-free (or, minimally, low in meat).

Not only does it benefit the environment, but your health, also (think of the new study showing the risks of red meat eaters and heart disease, cancer, and mortality).

Thanks for the post.

The Internetter said...

"Since you're not likely to be really sure just how much that cow farted before someone put captive bolt gun against its head, it's easier to just eat less."

Lol. Best sentence ever. ;-)

I'm not a huge meat eater, but had written off going vegan as unnecessary. But since I've lately been gradually convinced of the negative impact of the production of meat, I'm thinking of giving it a shot.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Eco Yogini - Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water. This wasn't the only article that has quoted that grass fed beef has higher methane output than grain/corn fed beef. You can read more here and a quick Google search will turn up more for you as well.

And I'm not the only one quoting from this Science News article either. Feel free to comment to Mark Bittman of the NY Times as well. I'm not sure why you are expecting me to review all the scientific data anymore than the next person. I'm presenting the information, not defending it.

Anyway, the point I was trying to make in my post is that there is conflicting evidence and that the mantra that I keep hearing of late, that is: "grass fed beef is worse than grain fed beef", was contradicted in the Mother Earth News article. In other words, I was hoping to let people know not to get caught up in the mantra. There are more variables to consider.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Anonymous Bee - Yes, the same issue exists with dairy cows, I just didn't make the distinction since most articles/studies refer to beef cattle, not dairy.

Eco Yogini said...

My perspective is that when I hear about scientific evidence pointing to one vs another, I don't get caught up in the mantra.
I do actually review data before stating one or another- it's important to know where your information is coming from to sort through fact from badly done science.
From the comments here- it would seem a lot of people took your comments to heart- most of your posts are very well done and researched. I was just disappointed with this one.

Anonymous said...

Not to plug another blog on this one, but Sharon Astyk has a very good post from a day or so ago with a lot of information on this subject on her Casaubon's Book blog. Be sure to read the comments, as there are some opinions from a couple of farmers who are doing grass fed beef and dairy.


Crunchy Chicken said...

Here's the link to Sharon's post: Eating Animal Products Ethically. I haven't read it all yet, due to the length, but from briefly looking over it, it looks like another good one. Go check it out!

TDP said...

When in college, I went the recruitment rounds for medical studies. One study was looking for humans who were methane producers - they actually said that 25-30% of the human population produce methane as a biproduct of their digestion. (The study was too rigorous for me to participate in, fyi)

Whether we eat meat or not, humans do produce methane. Whether we stop eating or even growing cows will not stop the methane production.
As an individual, I'll reduce or remove meat from my diet, and hope that my personal methane production doesn't tip the balance for the planet.

Robj98168 said...

Seems to me however you look at it the cow loses in the end.

Anonymous said...

Let's just not eat cows then.

Anonymous said...

@farmer's daughter wrote "After all, those abused cows are part of the biosphere."


Everything is connected, isn't it?

You had fun writing about farts, didn't you Crunchy?

kpeao said...

How come nobody asks whether chickens or fish fart? Or bees? Poor cows.

Hanley Tucks said...

Segwyne asks, "How about our own human farts?"

Human farts are 10-30% carbon dioxide, and 0-10% methane; the rest are not greenhouse gases. Let's be pessimistic and assume the highest proportions - 30% carbon dioxide and 10% methane. We pass 200-2,000ml of gases daily. Again let's be pessimistic, 2,000ml.

This gives us then 600ml of carbon dioxide and 200ml of methane. CO2 has a density of 1.98g/l as a gas, and CH4 0.717g/l. So we can see that each day people pass at most 1.188g CO2, and 0.1434g CH4.

However, methane is 23 times as strong a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, so the 0.1434g CH4 is equivalent to 3.298g CO2. Together, 4.486g CO2e/day.

Over a year of 365 days, this is 1,637g. 1.64kg - 3.6lbs for you Americans.

By comparison, dairy cattle create 587l of CH4 and 6,137l CO2 each daily, which all comes to 7,968kg (17,593lbs) carbon dioxide equivalent annually.

That is, the average dairy cow produces around five thousand times as much greenhouse gases from its farts and burps as the fartiest human.

So, you can reasonably worry about the farts of five thousand people, or one cow.

Of course, we humans are very creative and have discovered ways to create greenhouse gas emissions without having to do all that farting. We just burn lots of stuff. Woohoo!

e4 writes,

"Cows have been farting since before they were called cows. They've also been grazing and trampling pasture that long."

Indeed they have. But not in such numbers as today. We have a bit under a billion cattle in the world.

Considering all livestock, in 1961 we had 2,292 million cattle, sheep and goats, in 2006 3,322 million.

Considering fish, in 1950 we caught 18.7 million tonnes (7.4kg per person annually), in 2005 93.3 million tonnes (14.3kg).

While livestock and fish have always existed and always had an impact, we're consuming more and more of them. To say, "but they've always been around, so what?" is like saying, "Well debt has always been around, so why do we have an economic crisis now?" The crisis comes not from the thing itself, but the huge amounts of the thing.

Another point is that farts and burps are not the only causes of emissions from livestock; their manure rots down into the soil and releases nitrous oxide, which is a strong greenhouse gas (around 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from it, about half from animal manure and half from artificial fertiliser), and when it gets into waterways causes "dead zones" from algae. See for example the Gulf of Texas.

Carrick complemented my turn of phrase, and talked about going vegan. Morally I cannot fault that.

But from a purely environmental perspective, a mixed farm with both animals and a variety of plants, this makes most efficient use of the Earth's resources, and causes the least impact. If you just have a field of grain you probably have to use artificial fertiliser; if you rotate with livestock you have natural fertiliser.

So a farm with animals is environmentally better than one without; and if you have animals, they will breed and you will have to kill some of them. If you're killing them you may as well eat them.

Now, this approach means much less meat-eating than we do in Australia and the US - about one-tenth. The "Sunday roast" is a family occasion for a reason - it's the first time you cook meat that week! It's a luxury, not a staple.

In terms of animal welfare and basic ethics, I cannot fault veganism. But in terms of caring for the environment balanced with animal welfare concerns, eating a small amount of meat is best.

Hilary said...

love this blog!!!!!!

Segwyne said...

Wow, Kiashu. Thanks for the numbers. I didn't know that. I am glad you believe some meat eating is good for the environment. I subscribe to the belief that humans are at their healthiest when they consume animal products. I haven't decided yet whether optimal health can be achieved without any meat, i.e. just butter, milk, eggs, etc. I was convinced by reading chapters of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston Price. Yes, I know, people either love his work or hate it. I have not read the entire book, just chapters, but what I have read is amazing. I cannot support a vegan diet because I believe it is unhealthy. I think (but am not positive) that the medical profession has determined that a baby cannot thrive on a vegan diet, either. Alas, I am still working my family over on the concept of meatless dinners. One meatless dinner and some lunches each week is a great improvement over what we did eat.

I guess it all boils down that old saying, "Moderation in all things."

Anonymous said...

Rosa, one thing about those of us who get our beef by the full steer - we DO use pretty much the entire beast, and the cost is lower than grocery store costs. But while it's tasty you DO have to deal with the pastured and grass-finished steer often being really really tough.


Hanley Tucks said...

Segwyne writes,

"I am glad you believe some meat eating is good for the environment."

I didn't say that. I said that eating around one-tenth what the average Aussie/American eats is probably not harmful to the environment.

There's a difference between "good for you" and "probably does no harm."

Segwyne goes on, "I cannot support a vegan diet because I believe it is unhealthy."

The first thing I think of when you say you have to eat meat for your health is the old fellow with the bottle of "medicinal" whiskey. *Gulp* "Aaah... it's just for me health, I tell ye, purely medicinal." Yeah, okay :)

If meat-eating were necessary to health, then vegan bodybuilders would all drop dead. And yet they don't. There they are, pumped up and happy.

Diets are not healthy or unhealthy simply by virtue of whether you have meat or animal products in them or not. What matters is to have a wide mix of foods.

Have a look at this excerpt from a book, What the world eats. It's got photos of families from around the world with a week's food.

What you notice is that as the wealth of the country or family rises, families first add fizzy drinks, next more meat, and lastly more food in colourful plastic packets.

You'll see a great variety of diets, with all the families apparently more or less healthy and happy. The human body is very resilient, it can adapt to all sorts of different foods in different amounts.

A vegan who ate only lentils would die. A meat-eater who ate only steak would also die. What's important to health is to eat a variety of foods.

In considering whether to eat meat, or how much to eat, there are many things to think of,

- environment
- animal welfare & ethics
- $ cost to you
- taste/appetite - probably shouldn't even be considered, because this can change so easily
- health

You can argue about the relative importance of the first three. For example, if you believe it's wrong to kill animals to eat, then that's that - none of the rest matter. So the first three you can shuffle around a bit according to what's important to you.

But unless you have some particular health condition affecting your diet, then health comes dead last, simply because as I said the human body is quite resilient.

You can present us with all the fancy books you like with science supporting this or that diet, and we can counter with more. But the fact is that billions of people live on entirely different diets, so it must be possible. The human body must be resilient.

Chris said...

Really interesting comments.

Personally, I have found that as I improve my diet and include more nutrient dense food and eschew processed, nutrient-poor foods, I crave less meat. Without really trying, we have gone from fairly typical meat consumption to about 25% of the American average.

If more Americans ate seasonal fruits and vegetables, picked at the height of ripeness, I'll bet that they would naturally eat less meat.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

This is actually quite funny, since cows rarely fart - they burp while ruminating. Horse fart all the time and hardly ever burp...

Anonymous said...

One option is to switch to wild meat and in particulat non-ruminants which produce very little greenhouse gases. I recently made the switch to Kangaroo instead of other red meats because of its reduced ecological impact. I may one day try wild rabbit or wild goat.

Willa said...

Since we began eating only local meat, we eat by the "Sunday Roast" method- whatever meat we eat all week is first our main meal on Sunday, and appears during the week in a variety of "flavoring" ways.

I came from a family of vegetarians, was one for a number of years. I decided that if I was going to eat meat, it was my responsibility to ensure it was sustainably and humanely raised. This means we eat less. We waste nothing, out of respect for the animal sacrifice that put the meat on our table.
An interesting thought- should the world become vegan, wouldn't that mean the extinction of domestic animals like cows, chickens, goats, etc?


Scott Jones said...

What an informative post! It can be so difficult to learn legitimate and practical green solutions because of how many misconceptions there are surrounding conservation. Check out our myth-busting video “What’s Your Big Green Lie?!” which gives a taste of the widespread ignorance of green issues at

Anonymous said...

With cap and trade, the price for the free range cattle will be taxed more and those ranchers will go out business leaving the low cost producers. The free range cattle will not have any range to eat because of cellulose ethanol. That takes away a cheap forage for the free range cattle.

CaveMan said...

I like what Kiashu said. I say eat less or no meat, fish, definitely no dairy and little or no eggs if you want to be avoid western diseases. Oh, also no white bread, white rice, white sugar...Hey people, you can certainly think and do whatever you want. It's your life. Read The China Study and be blown away. Get it and read it. Forget all the crap you've been told by great marketing. Forget what you doctor tells you (unless he/she is telling you to eat a whole foods, plant-based diet). We have been brainwashed into eating disease causing food. Wake up! Read the book. The China Study. The China Study.