Carbon-Neutral Pigs and Chickens

by Jennifer Shike

Installing solar modules, injecting manure into the soil, planting cover crops, switching to LED bulbs — the list goes on and on when it comes to the number of ways pork and poultry producers are advancing conservation and sustainable practices in their operations.

Admittedly that sounds good on paper, but do those factors fully capture what sustainability means to a livestock operation?

“Your confusion is my confusion,” says Brett Kaysen, vice president of sustainability at the National Pork Board. “As an animal scientist, I am peppered daily to define sustainability. The United Nations would define it as a balance of economic, environmental and social concerns.”

What Does It Mean to You?

The reality is that no universally accepted definition exists. Sustainability is defined by business owners and operators, such as farmers, as they see it through their eyes, Kaysen explains.

For Sanderson Farms, the No. 3 poultry processor in the U.S., the term sustainability didn’t resonate early in its conservation journey.

“We didn’t like the term sustainability. We thought it should simply be responsibility,” says Pic Billingsley, director of development and engineering for the company. “We’ve got a saying here that you can’t manage what you can’t see.”

Measure Your Progress

In 2008, Sanderson Farms started looking more closely at its data, including natural gas and other utilities and products in its business that create emissions. Today, they can go back and look at what they’ve done to date to reduce their carbon footprint.

“If you’d told me 30 years ago we would be able to do this, it would have been a reach to me,” Billingsley says. “Now we’ve got systems taking the methane gas off our anaerobic lagoon as part of our wastewater plant. Then, it cleans it up to a pipeline-quality natural gas that we can use in our facilities.”

Some people believe conservation and sustainability are synonymous. Ryan Bennett, executive director of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Poultry and Eggs and the International Poultry Welfare Alliance, says farmers have to be environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable if they want to have a future.

“If we’re not doing something that’s environmentally sound, then we’re not going to remain economically viable and be able to continue to produce poultry and eggs in a sustainable manner in the future,” Bennett says.

The Need For Change

Whether you raise chickens or pigs doesn’t matter, Billingsley says. What matters is your commitment to take a deeper look at the products and inputs you use and to only use what you need. Then, you must work to convey those values so they become important to everyone in your organization.

“It’s got to be a culture,” Billingsley says. “Your whole team has to understand that for your company to be good, this is the world we live in today. This isn’t yesterday – the world today expects you to minimize your footprint on this earth.”

Although transportation and energy use are the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, according to 2018 data from EPA, scrutiny is often placed on agriculture, which accounts for roughly 9% of emissions. Kaysen sees that as an opportunity for farmers to continue to be part of the solution.

“If there’s ever been a time in the history of the world, now’s the time where agriculture can be a part of the solution,” he adds Farmers have demonstrated they can capture and reduce carbon, which provides a big opportunity.

“The beautiful thing for farmers is they can be part of the solution,” Kaysen points out. “Being part of the solution actually rewards them on farm, too.”

Those benefits extend beyond just economics. “I like the word reward because it can mean different things,” Kaysen says. “Often, we default to ‘How am I going to make money?’ That’s part of it, but there’s other rewards. I think this is an opportunity for farmers to be seen as climate change heroes.”

A Sustainable Barnyard Begins With Collaboration

Feed is one of the topics that brings animal protein groups together. Ryan Bennett, executive director of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Poultry and Eggs and the International Poultry Welfare Alliance, says those in the protein complex are exploring how farmers and the industry can make even better use of the resources used to make feed.

“We have a shared vision of improving sustainability within our respective programs, and we realize there are many things we can work together on,” Bennett says.

Individuals Become Stronger Together

The improvements will require communication and collaboration, adds Brett Kaysen, vice president of sustainability at the National Pork Board.

“If we’re going to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions per pound of pork produced in this country, we cannot do it without the help of corn and soybean farmers,” Kaysen says.

While the science and technology needed to reach these goals are still developing, they have come a long way.

“I think the barnyard — dairy, poultry, beef, lamb, pork — realizes we’re stronger together than we are apart,” Kaysen adds. “I do think there’s an opportunity for us to convene more often in a collaborative approach, while not disparaging each other.”

By 2035, Kaysen believes the pork industry can create a carbon-neutral pig.