legumes planting-green beef

Researchers plant legumes and forbs in Clarkston last week as part of a project developing strategies to improve cattle nutrition and reduce their environmental impacts.

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Cache Valley’s long been famed for some of its cattle products like cheese.

One less-than-flattering cattle byproduct, however, is their emissions of gases that can help form hazardous particulate pollution, especially during winter inversions.

The solution, strangely enough, may involve feeding cows more beans.

Juan Villalba, a wildland resources professor at USU, is leading a team granted nearly $7 million from the USDA to help improve rangeland for cattle.

The researchers hope to study how effective it is to plant “islands” of 24 types of legumes and forbs in rangeland to improve cattle nutrition.

In the summer, cattle range on grasses in the American West, but the nutritional quality of those grasses drops off as the season progresses, increasing environmentally harmful emissions from cattle.

“We create these islands in the sea of grass, with the idea that those islands are going to provide those cows with better nutrition,” Villalba said.

Using islands means producers can try out the strategy without having to reseed all their rangeland, which could be prohibitively expensive.

“A producer with a long-term plan, they can go step-by-step,” Villalba said, “getting more and spreading those islands, with time, across the landscape, eventually ending up with a beef production system that is cleaner, it’s healthier for the animal, and it also provides these other ecological benefits.”

One hope is that the cattle’s improved nutrition and digestion will mean lower emissions of nitrogen in forms like methane and ammonia, which can escape into the atmosphere.

And a lot of ammonia gets into the local atmosphere — so much that USU environmental researcher Randy Martin calls the abnormally high local readings “the Cache Valley Ammonia Supervolcano.” Sunlight can combine ammonia and other chemicals to form PM2.5 pollution, particles small enough to enter bodily tissues and impact cardiovascular health.

Secondary compounds in some of the legumes the team break down proteins in cattle’s rumens more fully, meaning it’s not emitted as ammonia in urine but as more stable forms of nitrogen in feces, according to Villalba.

Reducing cattle emissions would be an important step toward actually reducing environmental impacts from beef production, according to Jennifer MacAdam, one of the team’s leaders from USU’s department of plants, soils and climate.

“Many of the food products you now see advertised as ‘carbon neutral’ achieve that on paper, by putting money into carbon shares after traditional production,” MacAdam said in a media release. “We’re trying to create a little more authenticity in that process by actually adjusting the food system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the production level. It would be a foundational step forward.”

The nitrogen in such feces can improve soil on the rangeland or possibly even be used in fertilizer.

The nutritionally dense islands should be healthier for cattle, as well. Villalba’s earlier research has shown that some of the legumes in question can help lower parasitic burdens in cattle and boost their immune systems by providing antioxidants.

Those islands of diverse plants in what might otherwise be a sea of grass can also help improve habitat for birds and pollinators in the area.

The $6.8 million grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is supporting a multipronged approach to study improved rangeland nutrition, to establish practical approaches, to help beef producers try them out and even to bring K-12 students on field trips to see how it’s done, Villalba said.

Much of the research is taking place in Cache Valley — at a farm in Clarkston, researchers will study how well the new plants can persist in the landscape and how they interact chemically with range grasses, Villalba said. In Richmond, they’re studying how livestock actually utilize the islands.

Further afield in Utah, working with USU Extension in Ephraim the team hopes to “establish demonstration plots for workshops and field days, where other producers can see in real time, real life these islands deployed in the landscape,” Villalba said.

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