Edmonton·CBC Explains

Why methane continues to be the cattle industry's biggest climate change challenge

As we explore climate change and how we contribute to it, the cattle industry has entered the conversation. So how does the Canadian beef industry contribute to climate change when compared to the rest of the world and what can be done?

The cattle industry is embracing science and technology to bring down emissions

Tackling emissions from the cattle industry may take a range of technologies and strategies. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

CBC Alberta and Saskatchewan have teamed up for a new pilot series on weather and climate change on the prairies. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga will bring her expert voice to the conversation to help explain weather phenomena and climate change and how it impacts everyday life.

When Canadians picture the prairie landscape, fields of grazing beef cattle likely come to mind.

According to Statistics Canada, as of January 2020 Alberta had 40 per cent of the national herd (which numbers 11.2 million head). Saskatchewan followed at nearly 20 per cent, with Ontario third at 14 per cent. 

That makes the beef industry's role in climate change a contentious topic on the Prairies.

So how does the industry contribute to climate change? How do we compare to the rest of the world? And what is being done to arrest the rise in emissions — in particular methane?

Cattle and the climate change challenge

12 months ago
Duration 2:26
Canada has more than 11 million cattle, and the impact they have on climate change starts right in the pasture.

Cattle affect our climate in negative and positive ways. The positive impact lies in pastureland. 

"About 80 per cent of the feed that's fed to Canadian cattle is forage, which is of feed or food that's not really utilized by humans," says Tim McAllister, a principal research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 

"And in those forage systems, there's a lot of carbon that's sequestered in the ground in the form of the roots and the grasses that grow in those areas. So that represents a real significant carbon store."

But the negative impact is significant. The cattle industry contributes carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide from manure, cropland, fertilizers and other production. 

The greenhouse gas we hear the most about though is methane. 

Methane is a by-product of digestion. When cattle breathe or belch, methane is released into the atmosphere. 

Enteric methane is a short-lived greenhouse gas, remaining in the atmosphere for about 12 years before breaking down as opposed to carbon dioxide which remains for hundreds or thousands of years, but it is much more potent in terms of warming.

Enteric methane across Canada contributes 3.3 per cent of our total greenhouse gas budget, says Karen Beauchemin, a researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, who studies beef cattle nutrition and the environment. 

"In Canada, most of our greenhouse gases, of course, are from the use of fossil fuels," Beauchemin says, "so it's relatively small.

"But there's also contributions from the livestock sector in terms of manure emissions and the use of fertilizers and growing crops and that kind of thing. So with all of agriculture in Canada, it's about eight per cent of our greenhouse gas budget."

Globally, enteric methane is about four or five per cent of the global greenhouse gas budget, 14.5 per cent when manure emissions, feed production emissions and land use change are included, Beauchemin says.

"Like all other sectors of the economy, livestock production needs to do their part," she says. "And so we need to figure out how to reduce methane emissions in the next 10 years."

The Global Methane Pledge, announced at COP26, aims to reduce those emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 relative to 2020. 

Is Canada making a change? 

The key when looking at changes already made is efficiency.

Beauchemin and her colleagues at Agriculture Canada and the University of Manitoba compared emissions of meat production greenhouse gases in 1981 and 2011.

Over those 30 years, the amount of greenhouse gases produced per kilogram of beef produced (methane and all others associated with beef production) was reduced by roughly 15 per cent.

"Farmers had adopted better genetics, better nutrition, better management," she says. "We had greater yields of barley and other forage crops. All these improvements in efficiency on farms led to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef."

Beauchemin says on the global stage, places like Canada are faring better than developing countries. 

"The carbon footprint or the greenhouse gas emission per kilogram of beef in Canada was similar to what had been reported in the U.S. It was pretty much the lowest carbon footprint of any country who had reported for beef." 

Fawn Jackson, director of policy and international affairs with the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, was the project manager for the 2016 Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef which looked at the environmental footprint of Canadian beef production. 

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association's Fawn Jackson says producers are overwhelmingly on board to address climate change. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

"Canada has about 50 per cent of the greenhouse gas footprint of our global neighbours, per kilogram of beef that is produced," Jackson said. 

"It has everything to do with the amazing veterinary and animal health systems, the nutrition that we have here and also has to do with the purebred genetics that are making these animals to be very efficient."

What more can be done?

In Canada, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to the methane problem.

There will be a number of different strategies and technologies adopted depending on the farm.

Beauchemin says her research continues to focus on efficiency, but it also looks at ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions from cattle through diet. 

"For almost a decade now, we've been looking at a particular figure: 3-nitrooxypropanol.

"We've seen through a number of studies now absolute emissions reduced by anywhere from 20 to 25 per cent in a really wild-foraged diet, all the way to 80 per cent in a high grain feedlot diet."

Beauchemin says the conversation with producers over greenhouse gases is changing. 

"When I used to talk to producers 10 years ago when I started this research, they would look at me with this blank stare and they go: 'Why are you even looking at methane? You're kind of wasting your time.'

"And now a whole 20 years later, they're not working upstream. They're saying, 'Hey, how can we get on board?'"

Jackson agrees more producers are coming on board, though funding and information remain challenges. 

"When I sit down with producers and we're having a conversation about how we can do things better, the ideas are just flowing back and forth, and everybody really takes the responsibility of being a steward of the land."

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.


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