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New calculator helps pork producers measure, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions

There have been numerous studies done to measure and attempt to mitigate the greenhouse gases emitted by cattle, but a new digital tool developed by the Iowa Pork Industry Center (IPIC) and Iowa State University Extension aims to show hog producers how their production practices affect the environment.

The Wean-to-Finish Pork Sustainability Calculator is a free download that allows producers to input their own data to see where they stand and how making certain adjustments can reduce their emissions. "They can use their own data to understand how specific improvements in finishing, such as increased feed efficiency and reduced mortality, can influence the environmental footprint of the pig and barn," says Erika Johnson, an ISU animal science graduate research assistant who has worked on the project.

ISU Extension has created a new fact sheet, Evaluating Production Metrics in Relation to Sustainability in a Wean-to-Finish Barn, to go along with the calculator. The free download explains how the tool was developed, how inputs can be entered, and how making specific improvements in finishing can reduce their environmental footprint.

Swine vs. cattle emissions

According to the report Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2021 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, beef and dairy cattle combined emit about 63 times more greenhouse gases from enteric fermentation (burping) than swine. 

That's because ruminants like cattle, sheep, and goats break down coarse plant material in their rumen through microbial fermentation. This process causes the animals to burp, and those burps contain methane.

Non-ruminants like swine and horses also produce greenhouse gases in this way, but for them, microbial fermentation occurs in the large intestine, which has a lower capacity to produce methane.

Beef cattle produced 139.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2 Eq.) through enteric fermentation in 2021, the EPA report states, compared to 49.1 from dairy cattle and just 3.1 from swine. The MTC02 Eq. measurement includes carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.

When it comes to manure, however, hogs play a more significant role in the emission of greenhouse gases. Treating, storing, and transporting manure produces both methane and nitrous oxide.

In 2021, the EPA report stated swine manure management in the U.S. resulted in 24 MTCO2 Eq. in methane and 1.8 in nitrous oxide, compared with 35.9 and 5.5 in dairy cattle and 2.0 and 8.3 in beef cattle, respectively.

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