The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America


Authors: W.R. Teague, S. Apfelbaum, R. Lal, U.P. Kreuter, J. Rowntree, C.A. Davies, R. Conser, M. Rasmus- sen, J. Hatfield, T. Wang, F. Wang, and P. Byck

Abstract: Owing to the methane (CH4) produced by rumen fermentation, ruminants are a source of greenhouse gas (GHG) and are perceived as a problem.We propose that with appro- priate regenerative crop and grazing management, ruminants not only reduce overall GHG emissions, but also facilitate provision of essential ecosystem services, increase soil carbon (C) sequestration, and reduce environmental damage. We tested our hypothesis by examining biophysical impacts and the magnitude of all GHG emissions from key agricultural production activities, including comparisons of arable- and pastoral-based agroecosystems. Our assessment shows that globally, GHG emissions from domestic ruminants represent 11.6% (1.58 Gt C y–1) of total anthropogenic emissions, while cropping and soil-associated emissions contribute 13.7% (1.86 Gt C y–1).The primary source is soil erosion (1 Gt C y–1), which in the United States alone is estimated at 1.72 Gt of soil y–1. Permanent cover of forage plants is highly effective in reducing soil erosion, and ruminants consuming only grazed forages under appropriate management result in more C sequestration than emissions. Incorporating forages and ruminants into regeneratively managed agroecosystems can elevate soil organic C, improve soil ecological function by minimizing the damage of tillage and inorganic fertilizers and biocides, and enhance biodiversity and wildlife habitat. We conclude that to ensure long- term sustainability and ecological resilience of agroecosystems, agricultural production should be guided by policies and regenerative management protocols that include ruminant grazing. Collectively, conservation agriculture supports ecologically healthy, resilient agroecosystems and simultaneously mitigates large quantities of anthropogenic GHG emissions.