State of Green Business

What does sustainability mean for beef?

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

Sustainability as it relates to food production can be a challenging word for all vested stakeholders to agree upon. After all, everyone is a stakeholder when it comes to food — 100 percent of us are eaters.

That said, broad agreement exists that sustainability encompasses a balance of environmental, social and economic considerations and that sustainability is about long-term focus. The United Nation’s definition (PDF) for sustainability is about "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

What does sustainability mean to U.S. beef producers? Formally, it’s defined as producing safe and nutritious beef with a commitment to environmental stewardship, social responsibility and economic viability. Practically, sustainability to beef farmers and ranchers is about being a caretaker to the animals, the land and waters, being a good neighbor and community member, and maintaining profitability while doing it.

A central value to the men and women in the beef community is leaving their operation better than they found it. These farmers and ranchers recognize that they are temporary caretakers for land that, in many situations has been passed down from generations before them, and ensuring the next generation’s success is key to sustainability’s focus on the future.

While the general sentiments above may be shared by many, it’s more difficult (PDF) to agree upon the specifics once the sustainability discussion gets down to the level of individual beef cattle operations. This is because the beef lifecycle is complex and the work it takes to get beef from pasture-to-plate in the United States can vary by production system and region of the country. More information on the life cycle of beef can be found here.

The U.S. beef industry is diverse and wide-ranging. Cow-calf production takes place in all 50 states. What works as the most sustainable management system in one region can be quite different in another. Water use and management can vary dramatically across the United States, as certain regions are dependent on irrigation while others are wholly rainfed.

For example, the most sustainable beef production system in the temperate, semiarid, rolling Sandhills region of Nebraska with an annual precipitation of 20 inches per year varies considerably from central Florida with its humid, subtropical climate and annual precipitation of over 50 inches per year. Additionally, the most sustainable management decision can vary based upon the cattle operation’s business model. A producer marketing grass-finished cattle may make different management decisions from one marketing organic or traditionally raised grass-fed, grain-finished beef, although each producer is working to optimize sustainability. More information on the choices of beef that exist can be found here.

What does this variation in beef production look like in reality? As part of an ongoing beef checkoff-funded research project to evaluate the entire life cycle of U.S. beef production that has surveyed beef producers from around the country, we filmed a series of videos to put some concrete images to the complexity of beef sustainability in four major regions of the U.S. These videos highlight how the local environment, segment of the industry (cow-calf vs. feedlot), and personal priorities and goals of the operators can change the key sustainability issues of each beef cattle operation.

Below are the links to the videos that provide examples of how beef farmers and ranchers from different parts of the country define and measure success in sustainability on their operations, in their own words.

Santa Fe Ranch, Nogales Arizona  Dean Fish explains how his cow-calf operation can convert inedible cellulose to human food through a holistic approach to the management of water, rangeland and the wildlife who share the land.

Stoney Creek Farm, Redwood Falls, Minnesota — Grant Breitkreutz explains how proper management of his cattle has increased the organic matter in the soil on his operation, thereby improving, on an ongoing basis, the health of his cattle, the abundance of wildlife species, and his corn crop production.

J & S Feedlot, Dodge, Nebraska  Joan Ruskamp demonstrates how her vision of sustainability — respect for the land, the animals and the people in the beef community — is the foundation of her feeding operation.

Kissimmee Park Properties, St. Cloud, Florida — Shane Platt explains how his operation, only 25 miles from Orlando’s international Airport, uses management techniques to protect the water flowing to the Everglades, produce the highest-quality grass for his cow-calf operation, and encourage co-existence with multiple wildlife species.

While U.S. beef producers are proud of their current efforts to be sustainable and progress has been made to do more with less, there are still opportunities to improve. This commitment to improvement is why producers have invested in the checkoff-funded sustainability research program (PDF). To make progress and better manage resources, measurement is required.

The ongoing checkoff-funded life cycle assessment  in addition to relevant research conducted by scientists not funded or affiliated with the checkoff  helps to provide a roadmap as to which areas the supply chain needs to focus on to keep getting better.

For example, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the Office of Research and Economic Development at Nebraska recently co-funded a research project that will investigate how to improve land use efficiency with integrated cattle and cropping systems. Further improving cropping and grazing management practices to improve soil health and cutting waste of edible beef are just two of many ways the beef community is working to answer consumers’ calls for a sustainable product.

Beef’s sustainability story starts on every farm and ranch across the United States. The checkoff-funded research program helps farmers and ranchers improve their practices based on science, and their efforts help improve the land, soil, water and ecosystems. Over the next several months as a part of this series, we’ll explore more of the specific components of sustainability in the beef community, including greenhouse gas emissions, beef’s role in a sustainable food system, and specific examples of how the U.S. beef supply chain is making progress in doing more with less.

Internal links within this document are funded and maintained by the Beef Checkoff. All other outgoing links are to websites maintained by third parties.