Methane produced by ruminant animals, such as cattle, is a stable or constant source of the greenhouse gas, meaning on an annual basis nearly as much methane is released into the environment as is collected, sequestered or destroyed, according to Frank Mitloehner, professor and Extension air quality specialist in University of California Davis’ Department of Animal Science.

“Methane is a powerful gas. There is not doubt of this, but it is also very short-lived,” Mitloehner told attendees at the Iowa Cattle Industry Leadership Summit, hosted by the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association in Altoona last week.

Mitloehner noted that those who want the world to stop eating meat have seized on animal methane production as an opportunity to cast agriculture in a negative light. When placed on a level playing field, the cattle and dairy industry has very little impact on the environment, especially compared to transportation and industrial activities that use fossil fuels.

“Recently, I flew from California to Germany. That flight produced about 1.6 tons of CO2 gas (carbon) per passenger,” Mitloehner noted. “If I stopped eating meat tomorrow, that action would potentially reduce CO2 by about 0.8 ton a year. It would take me two years just to account for that one flight.”

Because of its chemical makeup, methane in the atmosphere breaks down and returns to the ground relatively quickly. Methane is held in soil and is a vital part of soil health.

“Healthy soil is one of our most important allies in fighting climate change,” Mitloehner said.

He noted that because soil sequesters so much of the natural carbon in our environment, practices like no-till or limited till farming is more important than ever.

He said like carbon, methane does have a warming impact on our environment. But while methane lasts approximately 10 years in the atmosphere, carbon has a lifespan of about 1,000 years. Carbon is the primary byproduct of burning oil and gas, making it much more impactful on the environment.

Despite the limited impact beef and dairy production has on the overall global warming picture, Mitloehner said the industry can do better, even moving to be a net reducer of methane.

In California, where he is based, the state put in a mandate that animal agriculture reduce its methane output 40% by next decade.

In response, many dairy farmers have started covering their manure lagoons, capturing that gas and selling it to be processed into renewable natural gas. Methane, rather than a liability for these farmers, is now a revenue stream.

By adding capture and other methane reduction practices to a farm, beef and dairy production can end up having a net cooling effect on the environment, more than compensating for increased methane released by developing nations and other industry.

“There will be a lot of opportunities going forward,” Mitloehner said. “Producers need to be paid to implement these practices and rewarded for their efforts. I believe we will see much more of this in the future.”