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Livestock

Industry continues improving cattle sustainability

Written by Gayle Smith
Denver, Colo. – “It is important to remember that farmers and ranchers care for more land than anyone, including the United States government,” according to the Director for sustainability research for NCBA. “That is a lot of open space, and although they already do a good job caring for it, they can always do better.”
    Kimberly Stackhouse-Lawson spoke on Beef Sustainability – Meeting Tomorrow’s Demand during a “Beef + Transparency = Trust” conference in Denver, Colo. last week. Stackhouse-Lawson’s message involved research being conducted by the beef industry to determine how to feed a growing population with the resources we have.
Contribution to greenhouse gasses
    When the United Nations (UN) released a Livestock Long Shadow report stating livestock was responsible for 18 percent of all man-made greenhouse gases, which is a number that is bigger than all of transportation, many people were alarmed.
    “The UN didn’t intend for people to stop eating meat over this report,” she explained. “What they wanted to talk about was how to feed 7 billion people by 2050, when the population doubles. We will need to produce 70 percent more food by then.”
    In addition, Stackhouse-Lawson reminded the group there are people in underdeveloped countries that are starving now. If those countries start to develop, and the people get healthier, that will mean even more food, she said.
    “What they wanted to talk about through that report was how everyone needs to get more efficient and sustainable to produce this much food,” she said.
    After studying the report, Stackhouse-Lawson said 18 percent is a questionable number because it is on a global basis. In the U.S., livestock contributes about 3.4 percent in greenhouse gases, but countries like Paraguay contribute 50 percent and Ethiopia, 90 percent. In those two countries, there are fewer people, more animals, and they are not as efficient as the United States, she explained. They may harvest animals at four- to five-years-old.
    “We are much more efficient in the United States,” she continued. “Not just with animals, but with precision farming. It is a big deal when you talk about the carbon footprint. In the U.S., we are very good at managing our resources, being efficient and using less to produce more. Some of these developing countries just aren’t as efficient.”
The answer
    Intensification has been identified as a possible long-term solution to sustainable livestock production that would be necessary to feed the world, but Stackhouse-Lawson admits it poses a problem.
    “When there are 750,000 cow/calf producers, the only way to intensify is to integrate by putting them all in feedlots. That is not a practical option,” she explained.
    Since then, scientists and the agricultural community have pushed for sustainability to take into account more than just greenhouse gases.
    “We want to understand how our agricultural communities impact and interact with the environment. We want to understand that symbiotic relationship,” the director said.
    Taking the bull by the horns, the beef checkoff will conduct a study that will determine how the beef industry can remain sustainable while becoming more efficient to help meet this growing demand for more food. The study will take into account environmental impact, economic sustainability and social indulgence for the next and current generations.
    Among other factors, the study will measure the animal’s impact from birth until it is consumed, and the packaging is thrown away, Stackhouse-Lawson said. Environmental and production costs will be equally compared over time.
    “Through this research, we want to develop new opportunities to become more efficient,” she said.
    “We want to conduct a hot spot analysis, which will help us identify areas of the industry that we have the potential to improve,” she explained, adding that will take into account economic, environmental and social issues.
    They also plan a life cycle assessment, which will be the most complicated analysis because it is scientific. This assessment will be split into pre- and post-harvest and will also include efficiency, economics and environmental and social impact.
    “We want to be able to answer the stakeholders questions and identify what is important to everyone,” she said. “We think by doing this study, it will allow us to accomplish that.”
Changing focus
    “This research will force the supply chain to focus on the right areas,” she continued. “We will know where we have the best shot at improving our sustainability and effectively address our needs for a sustainable alternative. Currently, no one understands the effects of grazing on the ecosystem,” she explained. “No one understands from a sustainability perspective what it means to have open space for wildlife.”
    “What does it mean to society for cattle to convert grass that can’t be used for anything else to protein? Does it mean a lot to drive down the highway and see cows grazing? Eighty-five percent of our cows graze land that can’t be used for anything else. What does that mean? Can agriculture be part of the solution for fire suppression? Do people care if they see deer? How do we make these questions part of something we can quantify?” she asked. “We understand numbers, but not the bigger social implication.”
    “Sustainability is something we can continue to improve over time,” Stackhouse-Lawson said. “It is important, because from a scientific standpoint, we don’t understand it. It is a journey, and we in the beef community want a more sustainable product, not just a sustainable product. This is not a one-year project. It will continue for years to come.”  
    Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..