Sustainability at the Feedyard

Raising responsible beef is a priority for farmers and ranchers, which includes a strong focus on environmental, social and economic efforts at feedyards and a commitment to continuous improvement. Watch this video to learn more.

Cattle Grazing Can Help Prevent Wildfires

Farmers and ranchers have been raising cattle on rangelands for more than 200 years. Rangelands provide ranchers with access to nutritional forage for livestock, preserving the integrity of the Western livestock raising heritage. Additionally, livestock grazing can be used as a tool to lower wildfire risk by reducing the amount, height and distribution of grasses and forage that fuels wildfire. When grazing and other fuel reduction practices are not allowed to take place, fuel such as dead and diseased trees in forested areas and tall, dry grass on rangelands accumulate, increasing fuel loads. When this happens the result is a catastrophic wildfire, a fire that burns so hot that the ground is left sterile.

Grazing on National Forests and Rangelands

Some Western states, such as California, Idaho and Washington, are experiencing devastating wildfires due to the combination of drought conditions and scorching hot temperatures as well as a lack of fuel reduction on public lands. The drought has left thousands of miles of rangeland parched, but peppered with forages that cattle can usually utilize for feed through grazing. When this land is left ungrazed, or unmanaged, the potential for a wildfire to start and spread quickly is exponentially increased.

Some states, like Idaho and Wyoming allow farmers and ranchers to graze their cattle on national forests and rangelands. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 provided permission for farmers and ranchers to graze cattle on public rangelands in a mutually beneficial agreement; grazing cattle on rangelands improves rangeland conditions by decreasing the amount of excess forage material while allowing farmers and ranchers to utilize nutritious forage materials to raise cattle.

An aerial photo of grazed and nongrazed areas on public lands.

The darker shaded area indicates where cattle are not grazed – this area has large amounts of fuel such as dried grass, underbrush and tree limbs, all of which can provide excess fuel for a wildfire. Photo courtesy: Idaho Cattle Association

Wildfires Cripple Communities

The damages from a wildfire are shattering – a single lightning strike can wreak havoc on millions of acres and can drive homeowners, wildlife and livestock from their homes. Unfortunately, a large number of people have been forced to evacuate their homes due to the raging wildfires and, tragically, a few people have even lost their lives due to the somewhat uncontrollable nature of wildfires.

Farmers and ranchers also face the loss of cattle, barns, pasturelands and hay stacks to wildfires and many will unavoidably lose their homes. These damages can destroy the livelihood of families, many of which are farmers and ranchers who will spend years rebuilding their herds, replacing their losses, and putting the pieces back together.

Fighting the Fire

When a wildfire spreads quickly and rapidly, fire-fighting resources are quickly depleted. Several wildfire-stricken states have had to call in military troops to assist firefighters with managing the rampant blazes. Annually, fighting and suppressing wildfires can cost federal, state and local agencies more than $1 billion. Every wildfire is difficult to control, but when a wildfire occurs on public lands that have been grazed, suppression is much easier due to the lack of excess fuel for the fire.

Cooperation is Key

The U.S. Department of Agriculture explains, “Grazing management on rangelands today is a collaborative effort involving landowners, land managers, permit holders, universities, other agencies and the public.” Many cattle farmers and ranchers wish to work together with state and federal environental agencies to find solutions for wildfires and help prevent future wildfires from starting and spreading. By utilizing cattle grazing on public rangelands, farmers and ranchers can reduce the risk of wildfire, and minimize the damages they may cause.


Beef and Water Use: Has the Drought had an Impact?

Lately there has been a lot of talk about water and agriculture, specifically related to the California drought. Often missing from these conversations is the reality that farmers and ranchers have been working for generations to conserve water resources every day, not just in recent years, with the understanding that water is a precious resource.

Over the past several years, severe drought in states such as California, Texas and Oklahoma has reduced the number of beef cattle significantly, resulting in the smallest U.S. cowherd since the 1950s. At the same time, the beef community has been able to raise more beef per animal through improvements in feed efficiency and animal health. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization cites these two areas of improvement as the key to future reductions in use of water and other natural resources.

ChildandWaterTroughCattle, nature’s recyclers

Cattle have a unique four-stomach digestive system called a rumen, which helps them get the nutrients they need from parts of fruit and vegetable plants that humans don’t consume or can’t digest—like carrot tops and almond hulls. These “leftovers” are often mixed into their feed, along with grasses and grains like alfalfa and corn, ultimately resulting in high-quality beef.

Water used in producing beef

Taking into account all water from farm to fork—including water for cattle to drink as well as water used in irrigation of pasture land that cattle may graze on, growing crops (such as the carrot tops and almond hulls) that cattle may eat, harvesting and processing beef, water used for refrigeration units at the grocery store or at a restaurant to keep food cold, for transportation as well as in cooking, and even the water taken into account for food waste—it takes 617 gallons of water per one pound of boneless beef consumed, according to a recent beef industry sustainability lifecycle assessment, funded by the Beef Checkoff.

Keep in mind that water for raising beef is not “used up.” The water cycle we all studied in elementary school still works. Water percolates into aquifers, it runs down streams into lakes and oceans, it evaporates and returns as precipitation, and cattle pastures provide land to filter this water and return it to the ecosystem.

Sustainability is taken seriously by farmers and ranchers

Everything on Earth requires the use of natural resources like land, energy and water—it’s what we do to be stewards of those resources that is most important. Today, beef is produced using fewer resources than ever before. The largest and most comprehensive lifecycle assessment conducted on a food found that from 2005 to 2011 the beef community achieved a 3 percent reduction in water use and a 10 percent improvement in water quality.

Conservation is never complete; farmers and ranchers will continue to work hard to reduce water use and improve water quality. Preserving farms and ranches for generations to come is a top priority.

Raising Beef Isn’t Sustainable? It’s More Sustainable Than You Think

Myth: Raising beef isn’t sustainable.

The Facts: To the beef community, sustainability means balancing environmental responsibility, social diligence and economic opportunity while meeting the growing global demand for beef.  Improving the sustainability of beef is of the utmost importance to the cattlemen and women who are working to ensure the longevity of the industry and are committed to continually improve how beef is responsibly raised. The strides made by one generation will continue to be carried out and improved upon by the next because we recognize that sustainability is a journey, not a destination.

The beef industry completed a first-of-its-kind life cycle assessment (LCA) — certified by NSF International — that provides benchmarks on economic, environmental and social contributions in the United States and a roadmap for the journey toward more sustainable beef.  After two years of data collection and research, the beef community has proven it’s on the right path forward with a 7 percent improvement in environmental and social sustainability from 2005 to 2011.

This research examined the sustainability of the entire beef supply chain from pasture to plate and beyond, also examining the impact of food waste on sustainability.  Innovation and enhancements in management and practices have led to some major improvements in sustainability, such as:

  • 32 percent reduction in occupational illnesses and accidents
  • 10 percent improvement in water quality
  • 7 percent reduction in landfill contributions
  • 3 percent reduction in water use
  • 2 percent reduction in resource consumption and energy use
  • 2 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

Cow-calf Operations, Feedlots and Feed Production

From 2005 to 2011, improvements in crop yields, machinery technology, irrigation techniques, fertilizer management, nutrition and animal performance have resulted in lowering the environmental footprint of the beef production process and improving on-farm sustainability. Increased adoption of Beef Quality Assurance protocols and other industry-led animal handling programs have improved our social sustainability. As greater efficiencies in crop production and animal handling become available, on-farm sustainability will continue to improve.

Packing and Case-ready Sectors

Recent advances in the capture of biogas from lagoons and the conversion of that biogas to energy has reduced the environmental fingerprint of the packing sector. By converting a byproduct of the beef harvesting process into a replacement for energy, the packing sector has decreased use of electricity, natural gas and diesel. Additionally, the installation of closed-loop cooling water systems and wastewater recycling has greatly reduced water usage and improved water quality. “Case-ready” products have dramatically reduced their fingerprint with advances in “right-size” packaging, improved water use, increased plant utilization optimization and a reduction in the pre-chain impacts of cardboard manufacturing. Opportunities exist to expand this technology into more packing plants moving forward and to continue optimizing packaging.

What is My Role?

Consumers also have opportunities to contribute to more sustainable beef, and together with the beef community, can make continuous improvements of their own. According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted. In addition to food security issues, food waste has environmental impacts as well, contributing to greenhouse gases from solid waste landfills. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), beef is one of the least wasted commodities, with 20 percent spoiled or not eaten at the consumer level. That still leaves a lot of room for improvement. Consumers can help reduce the environmental fingerprint of the beef industry up to 10 percent by cutting plate waste and spoilage in half and by upgrading to energy-efficient appliances.

The Reality of Water Management & Raising Cattle

Myth:  Water management and raising cattle do not go hand in hand, and it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce just one pound of meat.

The Facts: In reality, it takes 441 gallons of water to produce one pound of boneless beef.  Farmers and ranchers are committed to water conservation and have reduced the amount of water used to raise beef by 12 percent compared to 30 years ago.[1] [Read more…]

Are Meatless Mondays better for me and the environment?

Myth: Participating in Meatless Mondays is a simple step I can take to improve my own health and the health of our planet.

With Meatless Mondays conversations swirling in the news, you may wonder if eating vegetarian meals one day a week can actually improve your health and help the environment in the process. But you might be surprised to find out the reported benefits of Meatless Mondays may not live up to the promise. The Facts: Meat, and beef in particular, is good for you AND good for the planet. In fact, eating vegetarian meals isn’t a shortcut to saving the planet or eating healthy and may actually do more harm than good. Research shows that the healthiest diets include moderate portions of nutrient-rich meat and poultry. Contrary to Meatless Monday campaign claims, beef is both environmentally and nutritionally efficient – cattle farming requires less land, water and energy than in the past and provides 10 essential nutrients to your diet. Here are some common questions people ask when it comes to Meatless Mondays: [Read more…]

Is grass-finished or grain-finished beef better?

Many news articles make the incorrect assumption that grass-fed beef is better for you than grain-fed beef. Here, we address ten common claims about grass-fed versus grain-fed.

1. Incorrect Claim: Grass-fed animals don’t need antibiotics.

Fact: All antibiotic use contributes to resistance in some way. The real question is whether it’s impacting public health. Multiple studies have reviewed whether antibiotic use in cattle production causes an increased risk to consumers by developing antibiotic-resistant foodborne or other pathogens, and none have found a connection. (Journal of Food Protection, July 2004; Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 2003). Some cattle receive a class of antibiotics known as ionophores that promote the good bacteria in the rumen and help cattle better digest and use their food (kind of like a probiotic). The World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) agree ionophores are not important to human medicine.

2. Incorrect Claim: Perennial grasses are better for soil.

[Read more…]

Cows cause global warming? Incorrect. Beef production accounts for less emissions than you might think.

Myth: Cows cause global warming

Beef and cattle production have been targeted as one of the United States’ biggest producers of greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the numbers say that livestock or cattle contribute as much as 18 percent of our overall greenhouse gas emissions.

The Facts: Beef production and the environment…the truth

Cattle are not the major cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. In fact, their contribution to greenhouse gases is much less than most people think. According to numbers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cattle production is not a top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. [Read more…]

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