The University of Arkansas and Syngenta Seeds show in their new research the potential sustainability benefits of using Enogen corn for feed in the beef production industry. According to Marty Matlock, Executive Director of the University of Arkansas Resiliency Center (UARC), small changes can make a big difference in moving the needle toward sustainability.
Beef producers can likely reduce their environmental footprint by using Enogen corn for feed based on UARC's life cycle assessment, using feed trial results from the University of Nebraska and Kansas State University. These feed efficiency gains could not only lead to reduced emissions and less consumption of natural resources, but they can also help farmers maximize their operations.
Researching sustainability benefits
The UARC study evaluated the performance of Enogen corn for feed compared to conventional feed corn.
"Drs. Greg Thoma, Martin Christy, and I were approached by Syngenta, the Enogen developer, to lead a life cycle assessment with our research team," Matlock said. "Greg Thoma is the lead author on the work, assessing the environmental impacts of Enogen corn using life cycle assessment."
With the help of the feed trial results from the University of Nebraska and Kansas State, the team used the results as a scientific baseline to evaluate feed conversion performance and cattle performance.
"Corn produced in the United States is already some of the most sustainable in the world because of the way it is produced," he said, "but with our research, we asked ourselves a few questions. If you replaced conventional corn (standard, genetically modified corn) with Enogen corn, would it improve performance? Would it improve the production of beef on environmental impacts like greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, energy use, etc.? Would it make them even better? The answer to those questions is, yes, it does make a difference."
What changed in the corn?
Enogen corn is a genetically modified crop that was developed for the biofuels production industry to produce ethanol. When you distill ethanol, the starches are converted into fermentable sugars.
"In an industrial setting, you grind up the corn, and you add alpha-amylase, which is an enzyme we have as a part of our digestive system to break down starches or sugars," Matlock said. "You add the alpha-amylase enzymes because it breaks down the starches in that food to sugar.
"Beef cattle have the same process. Syngenta increased the alpha-amylase enzyme that's already in the corn a little bit more, so then the question was what happens when you feed it to cattle. It's perfectly safe to feed it to cattle although that is not what it was originally developed for."
During a time of excess corn production because of low fuel prices, the demand for corn for ethanol was down, so farmers started using Enogen corn to feed cattle.
"They observed, anecdotally, that their cattle's performance seemed to be better, so that's why Syngenta did the studies with Nebraska and Kansas State," he said. "And in fact, the calves do perform better."
Small changes, significate impact
The UARC analysis showed that a 5% increase in feed efficiency in a beef backgrounding and feed yard operation could potentially yield the following savings per 1,000 head, according to information released by Syngenta.
- Climate change: >162 k kg CO2e – Greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 35 passenger cars from the road for one year
- Land use: 66 acres – The land use equivalent of 50 football fields for one year
- Water use: >6m gallons – Enough water to fill nine Olympic-size swimming pools
- Energy use: >269k kWh – The energy to power 22 average homes for one year
"The cattle performed better by about 5% overall in the Kansas study and 6% in the Nebraska study," Matlock said. "Small percentages like 5 percent might not seem significant when feeding cattle. However, improving sustainability indicators across a complex system like beef production with tens of millions of cattle starts with understanding where the impacts occur in the life cycle of the product."
The cattle perform better most likely because they can convert the feed into biomass more effectively due to the alpha-amylase enzyme.
"The corn itself on the outside looks just like any other corn," Matlock said. "Where the increased efficiency and feed conversion happens is in the gut of the cow.
"Everyone looks for the big thing that is going to transform the world, but oftentimes, it is the little things that transform the world. The part of this research that is exciting to me is how such a small change, like increasing one enzyme, can make a significate impact and move the needle toward sustainability. It shows how much power we have to improve sustainability across the entire agricultural system. Little changes across big landscapes, make big differences."