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Sunshine into steak, Capper looks at increased efficiency, challenges in beef

Sheridan – “Any beef production system can be inherently sustainable,” commented Jude Capper, livestock sustainability consultant. “Whether we are in Wyoming or Pennsylvania or Canada raising 20 or 20,000 Charolais or Herefords or Angus, provided that we have three things in place, any system can be sustainable.”

Capper, who is passionate about sustainability within the beef industry, has been working for nearly eight years to show industry improvements. She addressed the nearly 120 attendees of the First Annual Ranch Sustainability Forum, held in Sheridan May 12-14.

Three keys

While any system can be sustainable, Capper noted that economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability are the three important keys that influence sustainability.

“The most important is economic viability,” Capper explained. “If we don’t have economic viability in place, in two, five or 10 years, the farm or ranch will be out of business.”

She continued that the environmental responsibility piece is growing in importance across the U.S.

“The environment has always been important,” she said. “We have always looked after the air, land and water.”

However, Capper added, “The general public has an image of ag as it ‘should be’ and not how it is. This brings us to the third aspect – social acceptability.”

People today ask more questions and are more concerned about where their food is coming from, she commented. 

“Unfortunately, there are lots of people out there who are willing to answer those questions for us,” she said.

“If we balance these three things, we should have inherently sustainable systems,” Capper commented. “Any system can and should be sustainable.”

Consumer opinions

At the same time ranchers are working to become sustainable, Capper noted that the consumer often thinks sustainable means only grass fed, natural or organic. 

“There is a place for every single system, and that is the consumer’s choice,” she said. “Conventional beef, however, is sustainable and will continue to be sustainable, provided we still have access to other management practices, tools and technologies that keep us efficient over the next 50 and 100 years.”

Providing consumer choice, she added, is very important in achieving the goals of the beef industry.

“Ultimately, we have a really big advantage over other industries, like pork and poultry,” Capper commented. “We take pasture where we can’t grow apples, corn or artichokes and turn it into safe, affordable and nutritious beef. We can turn sunshine into steak, and we have a great marketing tool in that we do it well.”

Opposition

At the same time, however, anti-animal agriculture groups pose a challenge in communicating with the consumer. 

“The anti-animal ag groups are clever at getting messages and numbers out there that appeal to people,” Capper said. “It makes it a relatively easy choice to give up meat one day per week.”

When “Meatless Monday” emerged, people bought into the idea of saving the planet. 

“It all sounds really good,” she explained. “However, according to the U.S. EPA, animal ag only accounts for 2.1 percent of the total annual carbon footprint. At the moment, we have 314 million people nationally.”

“If each of us gave up meat every Monday, the supposition is that we could make a huge difference,” Capper continued. “Even if everyone gave up meat every Monday for an entire year, our national carbon footprint would be cut by less than one-third of one percent. We have to put these ideas into context and think about the bigger picture.”

Beef-free life

The implications of no animal agriculture industry in the U.S. are more dire than just a reduction of the carbon footprint.

“One of the biggest things we lose is consumer choice,” said Capper, referencing the huge numbers of products that result from beef by-products, as well as the by-products of other industries that are consumed by cattle. “We all have the choice to choose vegan or vegetarian or dairy-free, but we shouldn’t push those choices onto other people.” 

Improvements

To accomplish its sustainability goals, Capper noted that large improvements have been seen in the beef industry over the last 40 years.

“In 1977, hot carcass weight for beef was about 603 pounds per animal,” she said. “In 2007, that was 773 pounds.”

She continued that, in 1977, it took five animals to produce the same amount of beef that only four animals produced in 2007, which means that more feed was required and more waste was produced. 

“At the same time, in 1977, it took 609 days from birth to slaughter. In 2007, that was 485 days,” Capper explained. “If we multiply those five animals by 605 days and do the same for the 2007 data, to produce the same amount of beef took 3,045 animal days in 1977 compared to 1,950 animal days in 2007.”

“We’ve saved animal days by being more productive and efficient,” she added. “This wasn’t done to improve the carbon footprint, land use or water use. It was doing what the beef industry does best – making a safe product in the most efficient way possible.”

Resource use

With efficiencies in production, Capper noted that, to make one pound of beef, U.S. ranchers require 19 percent less feed, 12 percent less water, 33 percent land and 16 percent less carbon.

“People talk about carbon all the time, but we can’t touch or see carbon,” she said. “Even the most ignorant person can understand that we need water every day, and water is going to be big in the next year and the next five years.”

When looking at production systems, Capper further commented that a conventional system resulting in a hot carcass weight of 800 pounds is more efficient than either natural or grass fed system.

“If we were to make the same pounds of beef that we do from natural compared to conventional, we need 14.4 million more total animals in our national beef herd,” she said. “If we go more expansive and look at grass fed, to make the same 26.1 billion pounds of beef that we produce today, we need almost 65 million more cattle.”

Feeding people

Despite all the concerns, Capper remarked that western ranchers still produce a safe, nutritious beef product efficiently. 

“In Montana, beef producers feed 12.2 million people with their annual beef production per year,” she said. “We feed 12.2 times more people than we have in our whole state. In Wyoming, 6.2 million people are fed with beef produced in the state.”

Capper continued, “This is a positive picture to show for beef. We feed an awful lot of people with our safe, affordable, nutritious beef.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..