How Well Do We Understand Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Open-lot Cattle Systems?

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Nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations, including cattle feedyards, have become an important research topic. However, there are limitations to current measurement techniques, uncertainty in the magnitude of feedyard N2O fluxes, and a lack of effective mitigation methods. There are uncertainties in the pathway of feedyard N2O production, the dynamics of nitrogen transformations in these manure-based systems, and how N2O emissions differ with changes in climate and feedyard management.

What Did We Do?

A literature review was conducted to assess the state-of-the-science of N2O production and emission from open-lot beef cattle feedyards and dairies. The objective was to assess N2O emission from cattle feedyards, including comparison of measured and modeled emission rates, discussion of measurement methods, and evaluation of mitigation options. In addition, laboratory, pilot-scale, and field-scale chamber studies were conducted to quantify and characterize N2O emissions from beef cattle manure. These studies led to new empirical model to predict feedyard N2O fluxes as a function of temperature and manure nitrate and water contents. Organic matter stability/availability was important in predicting manure-derived N2O emissions: inclusion of data for dissolved organic carbon content and Ultraviolet-visible (UV-vis) spectroscopic indices of molecular weight, complexity and degree humification improved model performance against measured data.

What Have We Learned?

Published annual per capita flux rates for beef cattle feedyards and open-lot dairies in arid climates were highly variable and ranged from 0.002 to 4.3 kg N2O animal-1 yr-1. On an area basis, published emission rates ranged from 0 to 41 mg N2O m-2 h-1. From these studies and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emission factors, calculated daily per capita N2O fluxes averaged 18 ± 10 g N2O animal-1 d-1 (range, 0.04–67 g N2O animal-1 d-1). Some of this variability is inherently derived from differences in manure management practices and animal diets among open-lot cattle systems. However, it was proposed that other major causes of variation were inconsistency in measurement techniques, and irregularity in N2O production due to environmental conditions.

For modeling studies, N2O emissions were measured during 15 chamber studies (10 chambers per study) on commercial Texas feedyards, where N2O emissions ranged from below detection to 101 mg N2O m-2 h-1. Numerous feedyard and manure data were collected and regression analyses were used to determine key variables involved in feedyard N2O losses. Based on these data, two models were developed: (1) a simple model that included temperature, manure water content, and manure nitrate concentration, and (2) a more complex model that included UV-vis spectral data that provided an estimate of organic matter stability. Overall, predictions with both models were not significantly different from measured emissions (P < 0.05) and were within 52 to 61% agreement with observations. Inclusion of data for organic matter characteristics improved model predictions of high (>30 mg m-2 h-1) N2O emissions, but tended to overestimate low emission rates (<20 mg N2O m-2 h-1). This work represents one of the first attempts to model feedyard N2O. Further refinement is needed to be useful for predicting spatial and temporal variations in feedyard N2O fluxes.

Future Plans

This work clearly identified that neither the magnitude nor the dynamics of N2O emissions from open-lot cattle systems were well understood. Five primary knowledge gaps/problem areas were identified, where current understanding is weak and further research is required. These include: (i) the need for accurate measurement of N2O emissions with appropriate and more standardized methods; (ii) improved understanding of the microbiology, chemistry, and physical structure of manure within feedyard pens that lead to N2O emissions; (iii) improved understanding of factors that influence feedyard N2O emissions, including manure H2O content, porosity, density, available nitrogen and carbon contents, environmental temperatures, and use of veterinary pharmaceuticals; (iv) development of cost-effective and practical mitigation strategies to decrease N2O emissions from pen surfaces, manure stockpiles, composting windrows, and retention ponds; and (v) improved process-based models that can accurately predict feedyard N2O emissions, evaluate mitigation strategies, and forecast future N2O emission trends.

Given the potential for future regulation of N2O emissions, feedyard managers, nutritionists, and researchers may play increasingly important roles in on-farm nitrogen management. Current management practices may need modification or refinement to balance production efficiency with environmental concerns. There is a need for data derived from both large-scale micrometerological measurement campaigns and small-scale chamber studies to assess the overall magnitude of feedyard N2O emissions and to determine key factors driving its production and emission. Refined empirical and process-based models based on manure physicochemical properties and weather could provide a dynamic approach to predict N2O losses from open-lot cattle systems.

Corresponding author (name, title, affiliation):

Heidi Waldrip, Research Chemist, USDA-ARS Conservation and Production Laboratory, Bushland, TX

Corresponding author email address

Other Authors

Rick Todd, Research Soil Scientist, USDA-ARS Conservation and Production Laboratory, Bushland, TX

David Parker, Agricultural Engineer, USDA-ARS Conservation and Production Research Laboratory, Bushland, TX

Al Rotz, Agricultural Engineer, USDA-ARS Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, University Park, PA

Andy Cole, Animal Scientist, USDA-ARS Conservation and Production Research Laboratory (retired), Bushland, TX.

Ken Casey, Associate Professor, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Amarillo, TX

Additional Information

“Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Open-Lot Cattle Feedyards: A Review”. Waldrip, H. M., Todd, R. W., Parker, D. B., Cole, N. A., Rotz, C. A., and Casey, K. D. 2016. J. Environ. Qual. 45:1797-1811. Open-access article available at:…

USDA-ARS Research on Feedyard Nitrogen Sustainability:…


This research was partially funded by the Beef Checkoff:

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