U of I researchers offer answers to common questions about greenhouse gases from livestock production

By Mario E. de Haro Martí, University of Idaho Extension

Cattle in a snow-covered pasture with mountains in the background
A group of cattle during winter feeding. Photo credit: Mario de Haro Martí

A group of researchers at the University of Idaho have produced a publication titled “Answers to common questions about greenhouse gases” to help livestock producers foster dialogue about greenhouse gases (GHG) from beef production. The refereed publication is designed as a tool to equip producers with accurate information and help them navigate challenging conversations about the impact of livestock agriculture on GHG. Written in a helpful Q&A format, this resource can help producers to start, maintain conversations, and answer questions on the topic when talking with other producers and, importantly, with people not familiar with beef livestock production.

As an Extension Educator in Gooding County and the Magic Valley, Idaho, I participate in meetings and field days with dairy and livestock producers and have many conversations to help me understand what they need from research and Extension. A topic that repeatedly arises at meetings, especially among ranchers and other livestock producers, is how to talk about the impact of agriculture on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and its effects on climate change.

The reality is that production agriculture in general, and livestock production in particular, is often targeted as a “considerable greenhouse gas emitter” without proper context, consideration of localities and production systems, and occasionally misrepresented extrapolations are applied or cited. 

Many have asked us how livestock producers can have meaningful and productive conversations about greenhouse gases, climate change, and the impact of agriculture with people who are not involved or have little knowledge of livestock production yet have heard that they produce significant greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock producers have asked some specific questions: What are greenhouse gases and how do they “work”? Why do different gases have different impacts on the climate? How do U.S. livestock production’s greenhouse gas emissions compare with those produced by livestock in other parts of the world and with other industries or human activities in the U.S.? What can be done to reduce livestock production’s greenhouse gas emissions?

Livestock producers are looking for a science-based easy to read publication they can use as a resource and can provide as a reference for others. Many livestock producers want to be informed and have those conversations but do not have the time to research the topic in depth. Looking for information on GHG and climate change can sometimes be overwhelming, with complex information available on websites, books, and academic publications that can be difficult to access and interpret. Like all agriculture, livestock agriculture has room for improvement in terms of GHG emissions reduction and climate change mitigation and adaptation. The impact of agriculture needs to be analyzed in the context of all human activities, including transportation, energy production, industry, residential, and commercial, to have a view of the scope of the impact from each sector and how to reduce it. Such analysis starts with an overview of what gases are emitted by the different human activities and the warming potential for each gas. Then, agriculture and livestock emissions, in particular, can be compared to the emissions from other sectors like transportation (29%), energy (25%), and industry (23%), the three biggest emitters with the highest impact. Agriculture (10%), commercial (7%), and residential (6%) make the lower portion of GHG emissions in the U.S. Knowing what percentage of emissions come from each sector and how those GHG affect the system with their global warming potential would guide people in establishing conversations about addressing those impacts, priorities, and how each sector can work to reduce their emissions meaningfully. This knowledge would aid the reader in analyzing those impacts and the cost-benefit for society at the local and global levels of different approaches to reducing GHG and applying mitigation strategies where needed.

Two cows on a hill in front of a mountain range
Curious cattle on top of a hill with snow-capped mountains in the background. Photo credit: Mario de Haro Martí

In response to this need, a group of researchers and Extension professionals have produced a publication titled Answers to Common Questions about Greenhouse Gases, a University of Idaho Bulletin (BUL 1020) that addresses those topics in a Q&A format. This first publication dives into what greenhouse gases are, how they work, and what percentages of GHG are emitted by diverse human activities compared to agriculture in general and livestock production in particular. We are now working on a second bulletin that will answer additional questions and provide more resources to livestock producers, including a deeper view of livestock gas emissions, what livestock producers can do to reduce emissions, and carbon sinks or how to use livestock production to capture carbon.

This refereed publication is a tool that producers can consult as a quick guide to have an informed conversation about the impact of livestock agriculture on GHG production and how it compares with other human activities. The Q&A format enables such conversations. Share this  bulletin with other livestock producers so they can share it with people unfamiliar with livestock production that want to read about its impact from trusted sources.


Chen, L., E. Winford, and M. E. de Haro Martí. 2022. Answers to common questions about greenhouse gases. University of Idaho Extension Bulletin BUL 1020. Online Access