The Agriculture Department is under fire from ranchers and Capitol Hill after encouraging employees to go vegetarian one day a week and warning that meat production contributes to climate change.

The department has since backed away from the statements, but not before causing a bovine brouhaha, particularly at a time when the drought is threatening America's ranchers.

"This move by USDA should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet," said J.D. Alexander, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

The offending comments came in an online newsletter to employees about "greening" efforts. The update schooled employees on ways to save energy, by using energy-efficient light bulbs, installing specialized roofs on buildings -- and participating in what's known as the "Meatless Monday" initiative.

"One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the "Meatless Monday" initiative," the USDA newsletter said. "This international effort, as the name implies, encourages people not to eat meat on Mondays.

"How will going meatless one day of the week help the environment? The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources."

The update went on to cite the "many health concerns" associated with "excessive consumption" of meat. It noted that many people are just not ready to go all-vegetarian, and said forgoing meat one day a week "is a small change that could produce big results."

Following complaints by the cattlemen's association, Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran called on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to clarify the comments.

"Never in my life would I have expected USDA to be opposed to farmers and ranchers," Moran said in a statement. "American farmers and ranchers deserve a USDA that will pursue supportive policies rather than seek their further harm. With extreme drought conditions plaguing much of the United States, the USDA should be more concerned about helping drought-stricken producers rather than demonizing an industry reeling from the lack of rain."

Moran, who also railed against the newsletter on the Senate floor, said he's asked Vilsack to clarify whether it is USDA "official policy" to discourage consumption of "American grown meat."

"It is my hope that the USDA has not abandoned farmers and ranchers in pursuit of policies best left to the Environmental Protection Agency," he said.

But the USDA later said that passage in the newsletter was included without proper clearance.

USDA spokeswoman Cortney Rowe says the department does not endorse the "Meatless Monday" initiative, which is part of a global public health campaign.

The agency removed the posting hours after the National Cattlemen's Beef Association denounced it. The USDA often promotes the beef industry by encouraging Americans to eat meat.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.