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Beef And The Environment

What I love most about winter is that I have about 1- hours worth of chores a day, which leaves me a pile of time to get caught up in the office and lots of time to read. My reading is usually very diverse and I really enjoy getting perspective from people, other than my immediate peers, about how they perceive and look at things. The big debate I am following this winter is the impact of beef production on the global environment.

As far as media attention is concerned, the beef industry has done a great job of keeping itself in the public eye — almost as good as Britney Spears and better than Tiger Woods. Our industry seems to constantly be in these predicaments, while the chicken, pork and dairy industries are able to hide in the shadows. It’s ironic how people forget/ignore that most dairy products come from cows.

There are many aspects to the impact of beef production on the environment. When I was working on my masters’ degree at Oregon State University, the hot topic was all about overgrazing and its effects on rangeland habitat and riparian areas and function. I couldn’t believe all the fuss in the U. S. about this and then when I came back from school the issue seemed to follow me north. Next thing I know the same issues were at the forefront in Canada. Looking back, I would have to agree that the issues needed to be dealt with, however it was not the cattle’s fault it was those owning and managing the herds who needed to be held responsible.

The next environmental issue at the forefront was cattle and manure management. Somehow, in our infinite wisdom, we decided as an industry it would be perfectly sustainable to take the barley production from 25,000 acres run it through 25,000 cattle on 160 acres and then spread that manure on 2,500 acres. This model of agriculture was suppose to work indefinitely and without any long term impact on the environment. Guess what? It’s not working and now every big feeder is into composting just like Martha Stewart! To me it seems, again, it should not be the cattle that are to blame, but rather short-sighted agronomists and land-use planners who allowed these developments to be built.

After the feedlots came the issue of winter-site management by cow/ calf producers. Like I stated earlier, it takes us about 1- hours a day to do chores and that certainly does not involve any bedding of welfare pens for cattle, yet many feel that this is the only way cattle can survive our harsh winter conditions. If you add five months of winter feeding and a hard, fast spring runoff, you have a mix for another environmental impact to blame the cows for — yet it’s not the cows to blame.

Now, it’s greenhouse gases and global warming our dirty, rotten cows are being blamed for. This particular debate and issue is a lot more complicated than the first three issues mentioned. First, the problem with the global perspective is that there are aspects that we at a local level have very little control over. Case in point — deforestation. In order to make way for more pasture for cattle, not only do you destroy a greenhouse gas sink, you add a greenhouse gas imitator. Secondly, the problem as I see it, is not just the fact ruminants are greenhouse gas emitters, the big environmental issue we must clue into, is the energy intensity of our North American beef production system.

I like to refer to our own cattle as 4WD solar powered forage biodigestors. By combining water, sunlight, soil and legumes, and harvesting it with our cattle we have one of the world’s most sustainable biodiverse food production systems. However, the day we decide to sell and/or ship our cattle to the feedlot the pendulum swings full tilt in the opposite direction. The intensity and energy requirements needed to produce food under this production system become immense. Now, instead of utilizing free solar energy for food production, we rely on stored fossil fuel energy to make food. There are many figures out there, but one that’s easy to keep in my head is that it takes two gallons of crude oil to produce one bushel of corn — that includes the fertilizer, fuel and the needed petrochemicals to make the herbicides.

We can debate whether it is more or less, but everyone must admit that it is intense. According to a study published almost 12 years back by Cornell University, animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein, while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein.

Tracking food animal production from the feed trough to the dinner table, researchers found broiler chickens to be the most efficient use of fossil energy, and beef, the least. Chicken production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef production required an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1. There will be great debate over these numbers and our industry as a whole is always quick to defend our grainfeeding habit as, “utilizing grains not fit for human consumption,” however to this I have to say was there not a conscious decision by the farmer to grow corn or barley in the spring? And aside from ethanol and beer, is not the main purpose of these grains animal feed? Our grainfeeding livestock industry is a direct result of grain surpluses created by post World War Two surpluses of ammonium nitrate and agribusiness to propagate the addiction.

The reality is, the world is not getting any larger and populations are not getting any smaller. Will our grain feeding ways continue? In the short term yes, but over the long term, competition for grain stocks from biofuels and human consumption as well as scrutiny from consumers about the energy intensity/environmental impact of beef will force us to reevaluate how we produce it.

The problem, as I see it, is by and large, as an industry we always try to defend our actions without looking at the perspective of others and also looking into the future. Rather than taking the bull by the horns we wait to ignore the issue until the issue is front and centre in the media and then it’s too late. In my mind, there is no doubt that North American beef is energy intense and has a major environmental impact. There is lots of room for improvement and as an industry we are well advised to do something about it before a backlash by concerned consumers causes even greater reductions in the demand for our product.

Dr. Christoph E. Weder is a purebred Angus breeder in the Peace region of Alberta and also runs SVR Ranch Consulting. He is also a founding member of Prairie Heritage Beef Producers For additional info check out www.spiritviewranch.com

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