GRAY COUNTY, Kan. (KSNW) – Hy-Plains Feedyard, LLC is located in southern Gray County along U.S. Highway 56. The operation is licensed for around 50,000 head of cattle, 85% of which are customer-owned, and has 280 customers, coast to coast.

“Our feedyard is small enough to where we don’t have to treat our cattle like a machine. It’s something special,” said Tom Jones, managing member of Hy-Plains Feedyard and Education and Research Center.

Hy-Plains Feedyard is among many operations in western Kansas and the world, working to innovate the industry as a whole. An emphasis within the facility is education and research.

The yard opened a state-of-the-art facility named The Hy-Plains Education and Research Center in 2017. 

The goal is to create efficient, safe, and top-quality beef. Most importantly, however, create a product that is sustainable and an affordable food supply for a growing planet.

“It’s our job to take care of these cattle. It’s our job to feed the world,” said Jones.

One of several initiatives of the yard has been working to create a cleaner environment through methane emission measurement and reduction.

Breakdown of greenhouse gas emission sources, Courtesy: EPA

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that agriculture contributes 10% to greenhouse gas emissions. The livestock industry within the agriculture sector contributes about 2% to greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the livestock industry is not at the core of the world’s environmental crises — following other industries such as transportation which makes up 29%, electricity which contributes 25%, and industry which totals 23% — Jones believes if there is an improvement that can be made, then the yard has to try and do its part.

According to a recent study by the University of California, Davis, methane is a greenhouse gas that is 25-28 times stronger than carbon dioxide, but how it impacts the climate and warming of the globe is different from recent belief.

Methane is a relatively short-lived greenhouse gas. It remains in the atmosphere for 12 years before it’s broken down and accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions according to the EPA. In comparison, another well-known greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, remains in the atmosphere for centuries and accounts for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, if there is a constant rate of methane emission for 12 years, one molecule will be destroyed at the same rate another molecule is created. 

Many in the industry believe that methane’s short life span paired with the significant reduction of the United States’ beef industry since the mid-70s, climate neutrality is within reach.

United States Department of Agriculture cattle industry inventory

Within the cattle industry, scientists suggest around 85-90% of methane emissions come from cow belches. The other 10-15% is derived from manure. 

“We’re starting from the measurement side of it to see how we can make improvements from our methane emission standpoints,” said Miles Theurer, research director with Veterinary Researching and Consulting Services.

Cows are ruminant animals, meaning they have multi-chambered stomachs. Within the stomach are microbes that help break down grass and other feed. The process is called enteric fermentation and is also the process that creates methane.

With 93.6 million cattle in the United States according to the USDA, that methane can add up.

“Our goal is to say, ‘Okay, do we need to use genetics,? Do we need to use feed additives? What is it we can do to lower our greenhouse gas emissions?'” said Jones.

At Hy-Plains Feedyard, advocates have become one among few yards in the world to put a GreenFeed machine into action.

The machine is essentially a breathalyzer for cattle. It measures gas variations of methane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and oxygen of individual animals and can also collect emissions data from those individual animals. 

GreenFeed machine (KSN Photo)

The system drops a small amount of feed into the trough area of the machine. Upon entering the trough, a cow’s tag will be read and recorded. While the cow is eating, the GreenFeed will log the cow’s gas emissions and develop them into a report. This allows the user to determine the emissions of the cow while also being able to determine the output of emissions for the herd as a whole.

“We’re really taking, want to take a holistic approach and make this a sustainable production system,” said Theurer.

Another initiative many companies are researching is the impact different feeds can have on cattle. Several operations have modified diets and are working with additives such as seaweed, essential oils, and a variety of grains to determine how feed type impacts emissions.

As for Hy-Plains Feedyard, another approach they have taken to evolve the industry is through GrowSafe Systems, Ltd. nodes.

GrowSafe node (Courtesy: Hy-Plains Feedyard, LLC)

These feeding troughs work in a similar way as the GreenFeed machine, in the stance that it can record data from individual cows. 

GrowSafe nodes focus on creating healthy, efficient beef. 

The machine measures and records data such as how many bites the animal took, how much feed is consumed, and how long the animal was in the node. This helps create a better determination on a timeline for how long it will take the animal to put on the max amount of pounds in the least amount of days while keeping the animal safe and healthy. 

In theory, if cattle can eat less, gain more and reach the market quicker, they’ll spend less time in the feedyards and create less methane in their lifetime.

“We built this system out here, we built these research pens, research barn. Why did we do this? Just to make sure we’re making a wholesome product,” said Jones.

Finally, other efforts aimed at reducing emissions focus on animals’ waste.

Many dairies, feedyards, and ranches across the country have worked to create a different type of manure storage and handling. 

Overall, at the end of the day, Theurer says it’s time to address the elephant in the room. He says although many of the initiatives are in the beginning stages, it’s important to remember, everything has to start somewhere. 

“It’s a big daunting task, and we’re not going to be able to get the answers today or tomorrow, but we have to start somewhere,” said Theurer.