Several researchers at the Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence are examining the ways soils and forages affect beef cattle and ultimately, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
Scientists at the University of Saskatchewan’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence (LFCE) are finding ways beef producers can continue to raise their animals sustainably by looking at the soil and forage systems in pastures.
One study that’s going into its fifth and final year is the sod-seeded legume study funded by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada through the Agriculture Greenhouse Gas Program.
In this study, researchers are studying cattle that graze on pastures sod-seeded with legume species. These legumes are thought to improve the effectiveness of the pasture and they’re also a non-bloat species for the cattle, said Dr. Diane Knight. She is a soil sciences professor at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) and a Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture strategic research chair.
“What we wanted to do was to look at the closed whole system in terms of greenhouse gases that are being produced,” said Knight. “We’re… looking at greenhouse gases and carbon sequestration and how these processes might change if we change the species composition of pasture.”
Scientists want to see how the different forages affect the microorganisms that drive nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane in the soil, Knight told Farms.com.
Once cattle eat the feed, the non-bloat legumes will be easier to digest and then methane production is hopefully lowered as well.
Scientists are also studying the urine and manure from the cattle. Changing the feed alters the composition of what comes out the other end, which affects the nitrogen and carbon cycling in the soil, said Knight.
“We're trying to link up the cattle with the soil, with the plant and how the whole system responds rather than just looking at individual components of it,” she said.
So far, the results of this study are promising, said Dr. Bart Lardner, a professor in the department of animal and poultry science in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at USask.
“We saw reduced emissions from the animals compared to the control,” he told Farms.com.
Based off the study Lardner is doing with Knight and other scientists, he has started researching the forage system. Specifically, he’s looking at annual versus perennial forage options for pastures.
“We know we'll have to establish the annual system every year, but will it reduce emissions from the animals and, at the same time, sequester more carbon compared to the perennial system?” asked Lardner.
This study is one year in but it’s building off the idea of what producers can do to continue to raise beef cattle sustainably.
What researchers are looking for is “a really nice mixture or complement of grasses and legumes that producers can establish on their farms or their ranches that will hopefully meet their expected animal performance, (while) reducing emissions and sequestering carbon,” said Lardner.
He is also starting other studies in partnership with the University of Guelph that look at the cow-calf sector, balanced diets and how adding different supplements can reduce emissions.
While what the beef industry only accounts for 2.4 per cent of Canada’s total GHG, both Lardner and Knight want to help producers continue to reduce emissions.
“It's important to support beef producers and give them options for their industry to graze cattle in a more sustainable way than they maybe presently have,” said Knight. It’s also important “for consumers to get an idea of the complexity and the care and thought that producers put into what they are doing. I think that a lot of agriculture often gets bad press with urban consumers. … There's so much that goes into the decisions that are made. (Consumers) need to be a little bit more educated in understanding the whole process.”
There is also a need to give producers and the industry credit to what’s been done so far.
“There's a lot of anecdotal conversations being had out there and so I think it's important to substantiate and validate the need for a beef industry in Canada,” said Lardner. “Producers are probably the most sustainable people that I know, and their objective is to leave those resources – be it soil, plants or water – in better condition for the next generation than when they took them over.”
Photo credit: Janelle Smith