Are Models Useful for Evaluating or Improving the Environmental Impact of Pork Production?

green stylized pig logo

Models are basically equations that are based on real-world measurements. Measurements are made in different situations and/or different times. Models are used to make comparisons between different choices or look at “what if” scenarios without having to implement each possible option.

Generally, models that are created with large, diverse (but still compatible) data sets containing relevant information are going to be more reliable than models with smaller data sets with smaller data sets. Models can then be used to predict performance or evaluate changes in a system.

There are very good reasons to use models when looking at the environmental footprint of pork production:

  1. Efficiency. It is expensive and impractical to measure actual emissions from every farm or barn.
  2. Decision-making. Models allow farmers and their advisers to look at “what if?”. Prior to making an expensive decision, farmers can evaluate the location, type of building, manure storage, manure treatment, feed ration, etc. and select the best option.
  3. Measure progress trends. Models can be applied at different points in time to see if a farm or industry is making progress in reducing their impacts.

Are there limitations to models?

Yes. By their very nature, models are a simplified representation of a complex system. Modeling is a balance between complexity (how much information does the user need and how much time will it take?) and accuracy (how much is gained by including additional variables?).  The results must be evaluated in their appropriate context. As an example, many TV weather forecasters look at several sources of information, including models when formulating their forecast. While on a given day the forecast may be off (either due to inaccurate analysis or results) it is safe to say that overall, weather forecasting is greatly enhanced by the use of models.

Do you have an example of a model used on pig farms?

One example of a model that is currently looking at the environmental footprint of pork production is the Pork Production Environmental Footprint Calculator.  It currently estimates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the day to day costs of the activities that generate those emissions, but research is underway to expand the model to include land,  and water footprints–leading to a more comprehensive “environmental footprint” model.

The model referenced above can be used for estimating the GHG emissions from the various operations on a pig farm in order to calculate the farm’s cumulative emissions. It shows where the major contributions arise, and provides a test bed for identifying strategies that reduce emissions at least cost. The model requires input information that most producers will know about their operation such as the type of barn, animal throughput, type and quantity of feed ration used, a physical description of the facilities (size of barn, insulation, fans etc.), the time in the barn, temperature profile for that area, type of manure management system (lagoon, dry lot, pit, etc.).  Sample costs for day to day farm activities are provided in the model, but can be updated by the user. The model output includes a summary of feed and energy usage for the simulation, including energy estimates for temperature control (both heating and ventilation) as well as costs.

Authors: Jill Heemstra, University of Nebraska and Rick Fields, University of Arkansas

Reviewers: Dr. Jennie Sheerin Popp, University of Arkansas, Dr. Karl Vandevender, University of Arkansas

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This information is part of the program “Integrated Resource Management Tool to Mitigate the Carbon Footprint of Swine Produced In the U.S.,” and is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2011-68002-30208 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project website.