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Whole-systems analysis needed

Laura Rance’s column “Publicity stunt or junk science?” in the Oct. 30 Manitoba Co-operator raises a point about catchy headlines versus the central message.

The National Centre for Livestock and the Environment (NCLE) is a team of research scientists dedicated to strengthening the environmental sustainability of animal production systems. Through sound and thorough scientific investigations, we strive to develop tools that will enable producers, and policy-makers alike, to make informed decisions about managing livestock.

Ermias Kebreab, who holds a Canada research chair in agriculture systems modeling at the University of Manitoba, is respected internationally for developing mathematical models that quantify the impact of livestock management strategies on the environmental impacts of livestock production. His expertise, coupled with the extensive field trials underway at NCLE, is critical to our collective efforts to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Kebreab’s research involves predicting greenhouse gas sources and sinks within various portions of the whole farm system including animal management, manure management and crop rotation management, to ultimately develop a “whole farm” approach to reducing net greenhouse gas emissions.

The work highlighted in the news release does not advocate a certain cattle feeding practice, but rather the value of using the proper tools in developing strategies for limiting methane emissions from livestock production systems. His research has significantly improved our ability to predict methane emissions during the feeding phase of the cattle production system.

However, as Kebreab and his co-researchers openly acknowledge, this study does not account for greenhouse gas emissions in the production of the feed grains or forages that were fed. Therefore, we cannot reach firm conclusions about the net greenhouse gas emissions from one overall cattle feeding system or another until we connect this improved knowledge of the feeding phase of the system to research currently underway on the other phases in the system.

NCLE research is, and will continue to, be focused on a “whole systems” approach, integrating livestock production and crop production. In the end, our progress towards addressing the broader system-level challenges, one step at a time, is the real story.

Don Flaten is chair of NCLE. Karin Wittenberg is vice-chair.

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