June 14, 2022


USDA scientists explores cutting methane emissions from cattle with steam-flaked corn


Scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Conservation and Production Research Laboratory in Bushland, Texas, the United States, recently took up a challenge to estimate how cattle feeding can knock methane numbers down.


"The most common grain fed to cattle is corn, which is typically processed to increase the availability of starch for ruminal fermentation," said Matt Beck, ARS animal research scientist. "The process of steam-flaking corn produces greenhouse gas. But, if steam-flaked corn can reduce methane emissions from cattle to a great enough degree, feeding it to cattle may still be more environmentally friendly than feeding them other grains."


The scientists evaluated whether two processes that produce greenhouse gas – steam-flaking corn and feeding it to cattle – could together create less total gas than the current corn feeding alternative: two negatives leading to a positive result.


By combining an animal feeding trial and a life cycle analysis approach to estimate the carbon footprint of cattle production, the research team determined that feeding steam-flaked corn to cattle reduced enteric methane emissions by 21% compared to feeding them dry-rolled corn, another common feedlot staple. The process used to steam-flake corn produced 9.7 times more greenhouse gas than dry-rolling, but it reduced animal emissions so much that the total carbon footprint of steam-flaked corn was 9-13% less than dry-rolled corn.


"Steam-flaking corn for rations in the feedlot decreases methane emissions, even when accounting for the additional energy required," said Beck.


"The research also suggests that grain processing can increase the economic return of a feedlot by increasing feed and nutrient use efficiency," he said. "That's a win-win opportunity for both society and producers. Mitigation options that also provide economic incentives are, most likely, the ones that will be implemented and used by producers."


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