Cattle as climate changers.

It is supposed that our cattle and other domestic animal herds produce large amounts of greenhouse gases in various ways. But. At one time there were massive herds of buffalo across the plains. Is the scale of our domestic herds less or more than those past wild herds of Buffalo and other grazers?

Maybe we wiped out a source of wild greenhouse gas and just rebuilt it. No real net difference?

There are 971 million beef cattle in the world. 92 million in the U.S., 12 million in Canada.

Plus264 million dairy cows, including 9 million in the U.S.

There were a lot of bison wandering over North America, but I really doubt they ever numbered more than 100 million.

There are approximately 100 million cattle are farmed in the US alone, and around 1.5 billion cattle around the world. We can only guestimate the number of buffalo in North America but best estimates are around 30 million. Buffalo were also eating wild grasses, various weeds, and other naturally occurring plants. Most cattle are fed a diet of high starch forages with low moisture content, and often ‘finished’ with grains, corn silage, and protein supplements to encourage them to grow quickly and produce fattened meat, which also produces larger volumes of both solid and gaseous waste. This, of course, doesn’t even address the domestic hog or other animals that are grown in concentrated feedlots and are bred and fed to produce saleable meat as quickly as possible. The impact of all of this on the climate is not well understood because of the difficulty of capturing the impact through the entire cycle, but the tired argument of “But what about the buffalo?” overshadows the substantial differences between population size and differences between wild ruminants and those specifically bred and fed for food production.


I should have specified North America as the example. Not the whole world.
Though there are other places were native grazers were displaced by domesticated ones. It wasn’t on such a scale. Wiki says 60 million or more buffalo pre 1800’s. No idea how accurate that is. So from the numbers folks dug up, it seems we are at least double the grazers now. Plus greenhouse easy.

One thing to take into account, the issue of CO2 from wild cattle was not a big one because nature deals with it thanks to the CO2 cycle. The problem of today comes when the balance is being changed by all the gigatons that man is releasing into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

As for the issue at hand, recent studies point to the discovery of America as a demonstration of how humans could change the climate even back then.

I propose that also millions of bison and other animals also had a huge die off thanks to the diseases from the animals of the old world that came to America in those days. So besides the huge amount of tree and vegetation taking over where millions of humans once lived, the bison and other animals were also not there to add their CO2 to the atmosphere. Still, not enough to be an important factor as the trees and vegetation growth, but a part of the reason why there was slightly less CO2 for several years back then.

One small variable to add in is the age of cattle v. bison. The bison lived a longer life “pre- Wild Bill
Cody” while cattle are raised and slaughtered at an earlier age. So there would be a small adjustment for longevity. Milk cows live longer lives than cattle.

My cheeseburger tonight had a negligible effect beyond assuaging my hunger.

Some nice offshoots on the question.
Until very recently I worked in the fossil fuel industry, and always took flak when I would tell my fellows we were screwing up the planet, and our jobs were bound for extinction one way or another. I absolutely know that digging up millions of years of carbon and releasing it is BAD.

But the other ways we mess about with things on huge scales interests me in how they may or may not balance out. I am not so sure how the domestic herds work out. I suspect that our current methods regarding them are worse than they could be. Natural pasture fed would be more balanced, less external fossil fuel input. Producing a leaner meat as well. And less stressed animals. Up to that final point. But does grazed pasture, and the animals on it capture / recycle, more greenhouse gases, than growing and providing the more high caloric feed? What is the CO2 and other gas capture of grazed grass, versus the fields of the higher caloric feeds? Adding in all the industrial intensity of those feeds, seems to say negative. But the scale of the operations might hide a balance. Calories in, calories out. Gases emitted, absorbed.

Not arguing that obesity isn’t a problem, but isn’t that a way to sequester carbon? :wink:


Not really. The population of both pre-19th century bison and current cattle were/are more or less stable. IOW, they die at about the rate they are born. Whether any given individual is “replaced” after 1 year, 2 years, or 15 years is immaterial. You’ve still got the same number of gas generating individuals either way.
There is the effect that if cattle are culled at age, say, 2, they spend a greater portion of their life as smaller juveniles versus larger adults. That might mean they produce less gas simply because they’re smaller.

OTOH, as anyone who’s ever fed a growing teenager knows, rapidly growing animals process a lot more food per day than mature ones do. Which in turn leads to more effluent. Both liquid, solid, *and *gas.

I have no clue which of those two factors predominates. But I’m betting the teenager effect is larger.

With the increasing popularity of cremation, maybe not so much. :wink:

Of course, you’ve also got to consider that, even at maturity, bison are larger animals than domesticated cattle. And the amount of waste produced probably scales by at least that factor (larger animals tend to have less efficient digestive systems).

There’s also how these two different animals effect the environment … bison on the grasslands range far and wide … cattle we fence in and grow their food through agriculture … such that we create more sources of CO[sub]2[/sub] while eliminating more sinks of the stuff through deforestation.

I always thought that gas emissions of ruminants were a result of the bacteria in their gut processing cellulose, that they could not process themselves - meaning that a grass-fed aminal would out-fart a grain-fed one?

A massive dip when the North American inhabitants died - the ones without metal axes to chop down big trees? But not when one third of the Mediterranean/European population died in 1350 and the forest reclaimed whole villages in some cases?

The CO2 decline does not really appear to start until 1550, whereas the major “clearing” civilizations like the Mayans and mound builders appear to have been gone for decades or centuries. (And those failures are allegedly, debatably blamed on non-human climate changed) More interestingly, the article neglects the correlation between climate and the sunspot cycle, which appears to have a more specific correlation.

The Great Plains never had trees to begin with. That’s where most of the cattle are.

It’s not well known, but settlers actually planted trees as they settled the Plains. Probably not enough to make any real difference, but every city and town on the Plains has trees where none existed before.

The Kilauea volcano in Hawaii discharges between 8,000 and 30,000 metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each day. And its a rather small volcano.

I wonder how this volcanic discharge compares with cattle “discharge” around the world.

Pound for pound methane is 20-80x worse for global warming than CO2 is. The range of values depends on what time horizon you want to consider relevant. Ref

This says cattle worldwide emit 80+ Tg per year of methane. That’s 80 megatonnes of methane per year. Versus the volcano emitting, by your numbers, 365 days * ~20Ktonnes per day = 7,300 Ktonnes per year = 7 Megatonnes per year.

So the cattle emit about 10x as much as the volcano does of a substance about 50 times worse. So the cattles’ GW impact is about 500 times greater than Kilauea’s.

I’m wondering where you get the idea Kilauea is small. It’s one of the most active on the planet. Unlike the vast majority, it spews all day every day year in and year out. In decent quantity.

The other thing to consider is that Kilauea has done so for centuries, perhaps millennia, and presumably will continue doing so for centuries or millennia yet. If not from that vent then from the next one as the crust slowly slides over the mantle plume. IOW, Kilauea is a baseline source for the Earth’s supply of greenhouse gases.

Substantially all the cattle appeared in the last 200 to at most 300 years. They’re a new addition to the system.

Thanks for the correction, I was kinda focused on Iowa with my statements and although this is one of the top cattle producing states, all the other top cattle producing states are indeed treeless wastelands of the American Midwest.

According to this 2014 paper, humans are responsible for about 40 billion tons of CO2 being released per year, and according to the USGS all the volcanoes together produce only 0.26 billion tons of CO2 per year.

Remember that methane is 86 times more powerful than CO2. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, cattle produce a quantity of methane equivalent to 2.2 billion tons of CO2 annually. And that’s just the methane, not the CO2 that cows are also responsible for, directly and indirectly. Some estimates say cattle are responsible for half of all the human greenhouse gasses.

So cattle beats volcanoes by at least 5 to 1, possibly more like 40 to 1.

Kilauea is a small volcano, just over 4000’; I didn’t say it wasn’t active. Its next door neighbor Mauna Loa, is a large volcano, over 30,000’ from the ocean floor. Ojos del Salado, (22,650’ above sea level) is a large volcano.

Kilauea is probably just getting started, although Lōʻihi, off the coast, might steal some of its volume, but today Kilauea (in stature) is small. When viewed in person, one doesn’t see any mountain or cone at all. The surrounding area is all around 4000’.

When discussing emissions the only relevant measure of “large” or “small” is emission volume. How tall the hill happens to be versus surrounding terrain is utterly immaterial.