Advancing beef sustainability is a full supply chain effort

Beef Checkoff
Beef has one of the most complex supply chains in the world. Everyone has a role to play in improving the sustainability of beef, including universities and research institutes, beef packers and processors, retailers, food service companies and even consumers.

This article is sponsored by National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the beef checkoff.

The U.S. beef industry has made progress improving its sustainability, but there’s room to do more. Further improvements are a full supply chain effort. With one of the most complex supply changes in the world, a full supply chain effort means that cow-calf producers, feedlot operators, universities and research institutes, beef packers and processors, retailers, food service companies and even consumers have a role to play in improving the sustainability of beef (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Percentage contributions of the various phases of the supply chain to each measured environmental impact of beef production and consumption. Note: the energy value of the feed itself is included in the impact category “cumulative energy demand” and if not accounted for, the post-farm gate phases of the supply chain dominate this impact category. Adapted from Asem-Hiablie et al., 2018.

How about some specifics? Below are contributions from Myriah Johnson at Noble Research Institute in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Kimberly Stackhouse-Lawson at JBS-USA in Greeley, Colorado, that outline just a taste of their efforts to improve beef’s sustainability.

A nonprofit research institute focused on healthy soils helps to coordinate a beef sustainability pilot

The Noble Research Institute, with industry partners, is involved in a two-year beef sustainability pilot project testing the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef metrics and indicators. This pilot aims to improve the sustainability of the entire beef production chain and act as a model for the U.S. beef industry.

This pilot also provides the opportunity to compile valuable information from the ranch all the way through the carcass on a production scale. Typically, a beef producer’s information about their animal stops at the ranch gate when the animal is sold.  The project will provide the animal’s feedyard performance (feed efficiency) and carcass information back to the farmer or rancher and create a unique educational opportunity; not only are producers able to learn how their animals performed, but how they stacked up against other project cattle and other cattle on feed outside of the project during the same period. In their efforts to improve, beef producers can use this information to better understand the impacts of certain practices on sustainability and identify opportunities for improvement. 

This pilot project also provides the opportunity to investigate industry issues that hinder sustainability, such as bovine respiratory disease, which will generate knowledge not only for pilot project participants, but for the industry as a whole. Gathering such comprehensive information promotes the feedback loop between producers, researchers and across all other sectors of the supply chain. By working together to understand and address the challenges that we each face, we can achieve our goal of continuous improvement.

The leading U.S. processor of animal protein seeks to lead on reducing water use

The JBS USA Fed Beef business unit focuses heavily on reducing the use of water in its production processes. In 2017, the team implemented four major water recycling pilot projects at the Greeley beef production facility with support from a $1.3 million capital investment. As a result, the facility was able to save 1 million gallons of water per day. Those efforts to recycle water also resulted in significant energy savings: Because the plant recycled water that already had been heated, it took less energy to warm the water to temperatures required for plant operations. The JBS USA Beef Team is working to implement these successful water recycling systems at the other nine U.S. and Canadian beef production facilities to create even more water and energy savings across the business.

Like many great achievements, these projects require more than expert innovation and engineering from the operational and environmental teams. They require buy-in and collaboration from the entire team, including food safety experts, USDA officials, business analysts, financial managers and champions on the ground. These piloted programs involve educating and training team members to engage in behaviors that support the culture of water conservation.

Water use will continue to be a major priority and a critical pillar in the JBS USA sustainability program. We embrace our responsibility to reduce water while preserving our high standards for food safety and sanitary conditions. We will continue to innovate, realize operational efficiencies, focus on the details of water use in our facilities and develop detailed implementation plans in order to achieve our companywide goal of reducing water use intensity by 10 percent (PDF) by 2020. Our Greeley, CO, beef facility is an example of what we can accomplish with focus, determination and innovation.

Incremental changes across the supply chain improve sustainability

As these two examples demonstrate, improving sustainability is an all-hands-on-deck effort from the U.S. beef supply chain. Committed actions of many individuals over time is how progress has been made and will continue. Ultimately, incremental changes can scale to substantial progress to a common shared goal — creating a more sustainable beef supply to nourish people responsibly. The U.S. beef industry will continue to improve and work with cow-calf producers, feedlot operators, universities and research institutes, beef packers and processors, retailers, food service companies and consumers to bring beef from pasture to plate in the most sustainable way possible.

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