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Producing More Pork Using Less

Scarcity of fossil fuels will drive efforts to produce pork more efficiently. If pork producers take anything from the current discussion regarding greenhouse gases (GHG) and carbon credits, they need to realize that energy is going to cost more no matter what path is taken by Congress

Scarcity of fossil fuels will drive efforts to produce pork more efficiently.

If pork producers take anything from the current discussion regarding greenhouse gases (GHG) and carbon credits, they need to realize that energy is going to cost more no matter what path is taken by Congress, says a professor of veterinary medicine.

“Fossil fuels are a limited resource and they are going to be increasingly scarce,” says Bob Morrison, DVM, Swine Group, University of Minnesota. “Therefore, costs are going to go up regardless of what happens with any domestic or international programs for climate change.”

On a positive note, manure will become increasingly attractive as a source of renewable energy through the use of digesters. “But today, digesters are not a good investment for pork producers because the amount of gas obtained is not enough to make them an attractive option,” he comments.

Another important message for pork producers is the more efficient they become, the lower will be their carbon footprint (See report on the “National Scan-Level Carbon Footprint Study for Production of U.S. Swine” on pages 8-10).

Basically, the carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gas that is created in producing a piece of pork.

The greenhouse gas that it takes to produce a piece of pork is comprised of all of the inputs that emit a pollutant in this case, carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide and methane. The gases are converted to CO2 equivalent through GHG potencies.

The carbon footprint is the total CO2 equivalent, divided by the amount of pork produced, to equal the amount of CO2 per piece of pork.

Climate Change Debate

There is much debate about the validity of climate change and whether the source is greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuels, Morrison says.

But the body of evidence and scientific opinion leaves little doubt — there has been a significant increase in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the last 150 years and the major cause is thought to be the burning of fossil fuels.

Some factions accept this line of thinking, while others doubt even the existence of climate change.

But the two sides can agree on one simple fact: as fossil fuels are used, they become less available, creating a need to promote efficiency, incent renewable forms of energy and discourage the use of fossil fuels, Morrison explains.

Discouraging the use of fossil fuels is one aspect of what's happening on Capitol Hill, in the form of cap and trade legislation, he says. It revolves around capping the major greenhouse gas emissions, coal-fired power plants and sources of transportation.

Through cap and trade, innovative companies that develop ways to reduce emissions can earn income by selling unneeded allowances to companies that exceed their caps. Financial payments from one entity to another incent reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, measured in tons of carbon dioxide.

The Waxman-Markey Cap and Tradebill capped carbon dioxide emissions at 25,000 metric tons (1 metric ton is equal to 2,000 lb.), which is high enough to exclude agriculture from among those capped, he assures.

Efforts are underway to offer incentives to small greenhouse gas emitters, such as farmers, to decrease their emissions, called carbon offsets.

Greenhouse Gas Ranking

A 2006 study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that agriculture contributed about 18% to global greenhouse gas emissions, consisting mostly of the impact of deforestation for producing livestock. In this context, swine is a relatively small contributor (See Figure 1).

More specific to the United States is a 2009 study, “Clearing the Air: Livestock's Contribution to Climate Change,” which indicates that transportation accounts for 26% of greenhouse gases, roughly 5.8% for agriculture and less than 3% due to livestock production.

“All of this is saying that U.S. agriculture is important, but not the low-hanging fruit that the larger emitters are,” Morrison proclaims.

EPA Ruling Spurs Action

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released an endangerment finding, a statement that says greenhouse gases are a public health threat. This finding gives EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, Morrison relates.

“That action has got a lot of people upset, so there's a large consortium of players, including a broad base of agriculture, that is supporting congressional action to take away that EPA authority,” he says.

On a global scale, the United States pledged at the end of January to the United Nations Framework for Climate Change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% from what they were in 2005 by 2020. The first step is a federal budget proposal to eliminate fossil fuel tax subsidies by $2.7 billion for oil and gas companies.

Origin of Cap and Trade

The idea of cap and trade originated in the late '80s-early '90s, when the sulfur dioxide or acid rain problems existed. A cap and trade program was put in place and by early 2000, toxic levels were greatly reduced. Levels are even lower today, Morrison says.

Even as cap and trade is debated in the United States, there is a regional U.S. program that is currently buying and selling carbon credits.

If cap and trade legislation is approved, the value of carbon credits will go up, and the cost of production will increase, according to the National Pork Producers Council.

“Producers fear the impacts that House of Representatives bill (HR 2454) will have on the cost of electricity, diesel fuel, propane, animal health products, fertilizer, chemicals, farm equipment and materials, such as steel and concrete, that are necessary for the continued operation of their farms and well-being of their animals,” NPPC said last summer.

For example, an Iowa State University study suggests that a carbon value of $20/ton CO2 will translate into a cost of approximately $5/acre for crop farmers or about 2.5¢/bu. of corn. “Multiply that approximation by 10 — the number of bushels needed to finish a pig — and the cost comes to 25 cents/pig,” Morrison notes.

No one likes to believe that the climate is changing, and acknowledging it means we must be willing to pay for changes to improve the environment, he continues. When the United States takes action, other countries must follow suit to ensure a level playing field.

In the end, when it comes to the carbon footprint, efficiency becomes most important. A 2009 Journal of Animal Science article illustrates that today's modern dairy cow (2007 data) is larger, eats more and produces more CO2 than a cow in 1944, so she has a larger carbon footprint.

But the milk she produced in 2007 has one-third the footprint of the milk a similar dairy cow produced in 1944, because she is much more efficient today.

“The same logic applies to the pork industry — efficiency is key to producing more with less,” Morrison emphasizes.

Swine Digesters: Not a Good Source of Methane Gas Yet

What about capturing methane gas from pig manure to reduce emissions?

It's been tried over the years in the swine industry in the form of anaerobic digesters, where methane gas is produced as a byproduct of manure. That gas can then be used to generate electricity to power the farm or sold to a rural electric cooperative.

But swine manure ranks low in terms of being a good source of methane gas, says Bob Morrison, DVM, University of Minnesota.

“People who have a digester are looking for food wastes to put in them because that co-product contains a lot of carbon that can increase production of biogas,” he says. Fats and grease are also high in carbon content.

Swine manure digesters are generally insufficient in gas production, but especially so in winter. The digester operates best at approximately 98°F, and if not enough gas is being produced, then not enough electricity is being generated and it becomes a vicious cycle, he says.

U.S. Department of Agriculture lists 10 swine manure digesters that are scattered around the country. Another half-dozen projects have been shut down or cancelled.

“We have conducted a survey of swine digesters and I think it is safe to say that most of them are struggling,” Morrison says.