Initiatives Tracking Beef's Sustainability

Initiatives funded by your checkoff aim to document beef's sustainability attributes. ( Todd Klassy )

Transparency is driving growth in America’s food industry. Across the U.S., according consumer research conducted last year by Nielson, 64% of households buy sustainable products.

Simply stated, consumers want to know more about their food. How it was raised, what the animals were fed, how they were treated, the impact on the environment.

“More consumers are asking about product attributes such as animal welfare and sustainability,” says Glynn Tonsor, Kansas State University agricultural economist. “The millennial generation in particular is demanding transparency in the food they buy. It’s critical that the beef industry get on board with sustainability initiatives because millennials are entering their high-earning years.”

Millennial influence on food products and societal trends are also recognized by critics of livestock production. Environmental and animal welfare groups view sustainability as a beef industry Achilles heel, launching efforts to tarnish your image as animal caretaker and steward of the land.

Until recently, cattlemen had little more than their reputation and family heritage to refute exaggerated, and sometimes even false claims about beef. Your beef checkoff is working to change that.

“We need both plants and animals working together in a sustainable food system,” says Sara Place, senior director of sustainable beef production research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). While that may seem obvious to farmers and ranchers, it may not be so clear cut to those whose closest connection to the food system is their local grocery store.

That disconnect between ranchers and consumers is the target of one of the many initiatives funded by the beef checkoff – specifically, research on industry sustainability. An early glimpse into that research and beef’s life cycle assessment (LCA) was provided to ag media last month during a workshop in Denver where a common theme developed after multiple presentations – beef has a terrific story, and ranchers need not fear the industry’s sustainability movement.

“Producers should not be uncomfortable about sustainability,” Place says. “Sustainability is the ethic they’ve been living their entire life. Ranchers have a great story to tell. What we’re doing with checkoff research is helping provide evidence that documents their good stewardship and animal care.”

Against The Grain

Evidence, such as the fact the industry is producing the same amount of beef today, with one-third fewer cattle, as compared to 1977. Such efficiency is made possible with better animal genetics, better animal nutrition, and better animal health and welfare.

Such tidbits of efficiency and sustainability, however, can get lost in the clutter of media, especially when beef is routinely a target of anti-livestock groups. Checkoff-funded research provides science-based answers to false or misleading claims.

“In order to push back on claims that the beef industry is not sustainable, we need actual science and per reviewed evidence that beef is sustainable,” Place says. “That’s what the life cycle assessment and our other research is designed to do.”

One often-repeated claim is that food security would increase if the grain fed to cattle was redirected toward feeding humans. “Upcycling of protein by cattle” is one example of a checkoff-funded study designed to answer such a claim. It’s a complex issue, but one made easier to understand by Texas A&M professor of animal nutrition Tryon Wickersham.

“How many 3-year-old kids can meet their protein requirements with the corn fed to produce one steer,” Wickersham asks? The project started with the assumption a steer would eat 1,400 pounds of corn, which would provide about half (53%) the protein requirements for a 3-year-old for a year.

Of course, cattle’s role in the food system is much more complex, and Wickersham’s research examined how livestock contribute to the human food supply by converting low-value materials, inedible or unpalatable for people. The research determined that feeding the 1,400 pounds of corn to a steer produces 117 pounds of protein, enough to meet the protein requirements of nearly two (1.97) three-year-old children for a year. In short, feeding the corn to a steer quadruples the protein made available to toddlers when consumed as beef.

“Beef producers do really good things by bringing a high-quality protein to consumers through feeding cattle resources that humans cannot eat,” Wickersham said.

Grain-finishing cattle is one of the reasons U.S. cattlemen produce 18% of the world’s beef with only 8% of the world’s cattle. The U.S. system also scores well when greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are measured.

For instance, an assessment of the environmental impacts of cattle production systems for seven regions in the U.S. was conducted, with an objective of using those regional assessments to determine national impacts of cattle. The study was conducted by USDA/ Agricultural Research Service, NCBA, and the University of Arkansas.

“This assessment was not intended to promote specific production practices or regional preferences over others, but rather to study the diverse management practices that have evolved in response to prevailing climate, available resources and culture of various regions of the country,” said Allan Rotz, an agricultural engineer at the USDAARS, Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, University Park, Penn.

That environmental study found energy use related to cattle production in the U.S. is 0.7% of the total, and is about 1.9% of that used in all transportation in the U.S. The project also determined that cattle production accounts for just 3.3% of U.S. GHG emissions, far lower than previous claims made by anti-meat advocates.

Same Beef Fewer People

The studies mentioned here are just a sample of the many ongoing projects the beef checkoff is funding designed to document industry sustainability. Indeed, it’s an initiative that will continue into the foreseeable future.

For instance, the industry must effectively market beef to millennials, who, as a group, integrate their beliefs and causes into their choice of companies or products to support. Research shows more than 50% of millennials make an effort to buy products from companies that support the causes they care about, and they’re twice as likely to care about whether or not their food is organic.

“The objective of the checkoff is to increase beef demand,” Place said. “Our research on sustainability is focused on answering questions about production practices that will impact demand five or 10 years out, and how these issues affect the whole supply chain, including consumer’s willingness to pay for beef.”

Taken as a whole, sustainability research and life cycle assessments are an investment industry leaders believe is critical to beef’s long-term success.

“We have a great sustainability story to tell,” says Dawn Caldwell, NCBA Federation Division Chairman, Edgar, Neb. “It’s critical for us to be able to show food service companies and retailers that our production practices meet all three pillars of the sustainability stool – environment, social and economic.”

Caldwell and her husband have a cow-calf operation in South Central Nebraska and North Central Kansas. She says the sustainability initiatives document the full-circle effect the beef industry has on ranchers, rural communities and on through the value chain to retailers and food service.

“Our checkoff is so much more than advertising and promotion of beef,” Caldwell says. “Every producer who utilizes the resources on a ranch and walks that off the ranch in the form of a highly nutritious protein plays a role in sustainability. It’s a great story and one our customers want to hear us tell.”

Related on Drovers:

Cargill's Sustainability Pilot Yields +1 Million Pounds of Beef In Q3

Sustainability Initiatives: Answering Beef's Critics