BY PEGGY COFFEEN, DAIRY/LIVESTOCK EDITOR Agri-View
June 28, 2012
Contrary to what some people may perceive, the estimated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that trace back to pork production is roughly one-third of 1 percent of all GHG sources in the United States. While this portion may be small, industry leaders are not resting on their laurels. Ongoing efforts led by the National Pork Board have estimated improvements among hog producers’ carbon footprint over the past 50 years, and they have also developed a tool for producers to estimate the emissions from their hog facilities.
“Safeguarding natural resources is one of six ethical principles and part of the pork industry’s We Care efforts. Producers work every day to adhere to these principles of safeguarding natural resources and the environment, improving quality of life and public health,” says Allen Stokes, director of environmental programs for the National Pork Board.
A recently completed study looked at resource demand and the environmental impact of the pork herd today versus 50 years ago (2009 versus 1959). Stokes pointed out that this time period is significant because it predates some of the innovations and additional steps taken in swine industry in regards to improved production methods and technology.
“We have made great strides relative to resource demand and impacts on the environment,” he notes. Over 50 years we have increased hogs marketed by 29 percent while decreasing the breeding herd population by 39 percent. “We produce more pigs in one litter today than we did in an entire year in the 1950-1970s,” he says, pointing out feed efficiency which today marks a 33 percent improvement per pound of carcass weight. Further, land and water use to produce one pound of pork has decreased by 59 percent and 41 percent respectively, and the overall carbon footprint has been reduced by 35 percent.
These improvements are the result of a number of things, Stokes says, including improved efficiency of swine-feeding regimens, low crude protein diets, and more precise diet formulation based on needs particular to gender and stage of growth. New techniques and technology for capturing and utilizing manure as a fertilizer resource has also reduced impact. The same goes for watering systems. Advancements in crop production have also helped to reduce the carbon footprint of feedstuffs.
“While we understand where we come from and think we have come a long way, we must also understand that the environment is a continual process to gain the trust of the public and we must do all we can to protect the environment and natural resources,” Stokes adds. That is why the pork checkoff is investing in research involving the four pillars of environmental sustainability: carbon, water, air and land. “When they all come together, these will be key components of an overall environmental sustainability program for the hog industry,” he says.
To estimate the impacts of these four areas, work has first been done on the carbon footprint. The University of Arkansas completed an overall emissions study that looked at two parts: how much GHGs are emitted by pork production and from where; and what can be done to lower these emissions.
Dr. Rick Ulrich, who led research efforts, explains the “cradle to grave” analysis that examined carbon emissions related to every step of the pork production process, from growing feed to throwing away bones. What he found was that most of the carbon was coming from two sources, manure and feed. He notes that while finishing barns emit more than a sow barn, manure and feed continue to lead carbon emissions in both live production stages. Fuel and electricity made up only a minor portion of emissions on hog farms; however, later on during the processing of pork where refrigeration and transportation are required, fuel and electricity become a larger contributor.
Through this study, Ulrich was able to compare emissions from hogs compared to other types of livestock used as major protein sources. While beef cattle top the list due to their ruminant nature, poultry are the lowest. Hogs are somewhere in between. “Emissions are understandable, and I think it is good to keep track of these for future awareness of what carbon emissions bring to the environment,” he says.
One of the conclusions of the study revealed little correlation between energy efficiency and reducing GHGs. “Americans have a knee-jerk reaction that saving energy reduces the GHG footprint,” he says, “This is not true.” Energy savings do not have a profound impact on GHG emissions on the farm, he states.
Ulrich also reached a couple of other conclusions. In regards to manure, emissions can be profoundly affected by farm location, or more specifically, temperature. For example, emissions would be greater in a warmer climate like North Carolina compared to a milder climate like Iowa. Location also impacts carbon emissions related to feed, including fertilizer, transportation and availability.
Because of the strong influence of these factors on GHG emissions, they were included in the carbon footprint calculator created by the University of Arkansas and Ulrich. The program accounts for 630 locations around the United States to best estimate weather, temperature, humidity and rainfall. The program also offers a drop-down menu listing several options of manure handling methods to create the most accurate prediction. Producers can enter in other details that most would know readily, including barn demographics and feed sources. With in a matter of seconds, the producer will have a bar graph of outputs showing where carbon emissions on their specific operation are coming from.
“We think this representation is the most comprehensive treatment of GHGs in agriculture. What has been done with pork is much more advanced than what has been done in other industries,” he notes. Further research is being done to put an economic estimation on what it would cost a producer to avoid or reduce emissions. “We need to know what it costs to reduce the carbon footprint. We might even find places where it makes money to reduce c footprint,” he adds.
For more information on this study, visit www.pork.org/sustainability.