The Hot Air Regarding Cow Farts

Cow farts, the bane of anyone that wants to save the environment. Ending the existence of cows or at least their farts is what many believe will save the environment. How could this possibly be realistic? Well the simple answer is that it is not. Cows are actually not nearly as harmful to the environment as humans. Cows, if raised properly even have the ability to contribute to more sustainable efforts to help save the environment. So, let’s break this down to understand cows and their relationship to the environment more.

All Hot Air: There’s Worse Things Than a Cow Fart

First, here’s some numbers to peruse and make your own assumptions about.

  • Number of cows on the planet: Roughly 1.4 Billion.
  • Number of humans on the planet: Roughly 7.442 Billion.
  • Number of cars on the planet: Roughly 1.015 Billion (Does not include off road vehicles or heavy construction machinery).

Just looking at these numbers, it is hard to believe that people can still blame cows. But delving further, it is even easier to see how ridiculous it is to believe that environmental myth. This myth was created by anti-animal agriculture activists to encourage people to stop consuming animal products. (Scare tactics anyone?) So, here is the actual breakdown of Greenhouse Gas Emissions according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Agriculture as a whole only contributes 9% of total GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions. While residential, industry, transportation, and electricity all contribute more to GHG emissions. Cows produce one third of that 9% of GHG emissions, this is still a rather small number compared to all the other sectors. Livestock and cows seem pretty insignificant now. So going vegan won’t do much if you’re still driving a car and using the wrong light bulbs. But making others feel guilty about eating meat is so much easier than giving up the luxury of driving to Trader Joe’s.

Graph provided by Mitloehoner, UC Davis

How Animal Agriculture has Improved

Animal Agriculture has come a long way over the last 70 years. With new technologies and better genetics for bovine, dairy farmers and beef ranchers have been able to reduce or keep their carbon footprint the same. Farmers and ranchers are now able to produce enough milk and beef that is needed to feed an even bigger population with less animals (which means less waste).


• 1950: 22 million dairy cows produced 117 million tons milk

• 2015: 9 million dairy cows produced 209 million tons of milk. (Fifty-nine percent fewer cows produced 79 percent more milk than they did in 1950.)


• 1970: 140 million head of cattle produced 24 million tons of beef

• 2015: 90 million (36 percent fewer) head of cattle produce 24 million tons of beef. Mitloehner

There are not a lot of other industries that have been able to produce even more than what they had been before with even less GHG emissions. Better genetics plays a big role in this, dairy cows can produce more milk than they had been before. New technologies such as better milk barns to make milking more efficient, and better feed which allows for beef cows to reach their peak sooner in their life also cuts down on GHG emissions.

How to Improve Animal Agriculture

Animal agriculture is still far from perfect, there are still many improvements that can be made to lower GHG emissions.

Better Genetics. Farmers and ranchers are always looking to improve their herd’s genetics to ensure that they can produce the most product with the lowest cost and feed waste (Spoiler alert: They make a living from their animals and need them to produce the highest quality product with the least amount of waste).

Pasture Raised Cattle. Recent studies have shown how grass fed cattle have led to lower GHG emissions. There are still pros and cons to this way of raising cattle. But, when done properly can reduce methane produced by the cattle because it is easier for the animals to digest, as well as reduce transportation of feed to the farms or ranches. Grass fed operations also help to restore the native grasses and soil to ensure that there will still be grass for our great grandchildren. (Thanks Bessy!) One last benefit of grass fed operations is the improvement of run-off water from well-managed pastures.

Manure Management. This is the crap that no one wants to talk about. The best ways to handle manure is to handle it as a solid rather than storing it in a liquid based system such as a lagoon. Spreading the manure onto pastures or allowing the cows to spend most of their time on pasture so that’s the only place for the manure to go will greatly cut down on GHG emissions. Other farms are starting to capture the CH4 from manure decomposition to produce renewable energy. Whichever they prefer, farmers and ranchers need to start looking at new ways to handle their shit.

Eat your Beef and Drink your Milk

There’s definitely worse things a person can do than eat beef or drink milk. But here’s a few ways to ensure that when a person does consume these products, they are not contributing to unnecessary GHG emissions.

Buy Local, It’s Not Just for Hipsters Buying local ensures that your food took the shortest possible trip to get to your plate. Which cuts down on transportation GHG emissions (the second largest contributor).

Know your Farmer If you don’t know a farmer, then meet one, maybe at your local farmer’s market. Farmers love to talk about their passion. They may even invite you out to their farm. Farmers truly are passionate about the environment because their livelihood relies solely on how well their animals are doing and how well their relationship with the environment is.

Vote! Real change can’t happen unless the people as a whole make it happen. While your own individual food choices might make a slight difference, the real change comes from change as a whole. As previously stated, if the environment is your number one concern, then going vegan won’t solve anything, and neither will attacking farmers. They want to save the environment too because they enjoy feeding the world. So banning together with local farmers and environmental specialists to enact real change will cause the biggest impact.

Don’t be scared to drink that liquid gold or have beef for dinner. Those cows may be helping to ensure that your great grandchildren know what a blade of grass looks like. So hug a cow and thank a farmer.

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