4 Things To Know About Cattle And Their Impact on Sustainability
Sara Place likes to say that beef is the original plant-based meat. “I think it's important for us to remember the power of ruminants and how amazing these critters are,” says Place, Ph.D., chief sustainability officer at Elanco.
During a presentation at the 2021 Alltech ONE Ideas Conference, Place addressed sustainability and beef production. She says the topic is complex, and one reason for that is because people have different values.
“One person may prioritize animal welfare above an environmental footprint; another may prioritize the affordability of food above all other issues,” she explains. “It's not that one person is right or wrong, it's just the reality that this is the challenge we're dealing with in a pluralistic society when it comes to sustainability.”
With that perspective in mind, Place addressed four common questions she hears from consumers.
1. With regard to resource competition, are livestock eating what could be food for humans?
She says yes, in part, but not as much of the total global feed ration as many people think.
According to analysis of research by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 14% of what livestock consume globally, mainly in the form of grains, could be eaten by humans directly. However, 86% of feedstuffs livestock eat are made up primarily of forages that cannot be consumed in a direct manner by people.
“That's really the headline—ruminants are able to upcycle, taking something with little or no value and upgrading those plants into higher value products,” she says. “That's what livestock in general, and especially ruminants, excel at in the food system.”
Because the majority of the feed resources used to generate grain-finished beef in the United States is not in competition with the human food supply, and the protein value of beef to humans is 2.63 times greater than corn grain, the U.S. grain-finished beef system is generating more high-quality protein for the human populace than it is using.
“Cattle only need 0.6 kilograms of human edible protein in feed to make 1 kilogram of human animal protein and meat,” she says.
2. Is meat production taking place on land that should be used to grow crops?
Very little. The vast majority of land used for beef production is on land unsuitable for crop production.
“These are landscapes that are too arid, too rocky, and too steep for us to cultivate crops on directly,” she says.
While some groups and individuals would recommend pulling that land out of any agricultural use whatsoever, that move would likely be counterproductive.
Keeping a continuous cover of some type on highly erodible soils is a key to keeping erosion at bay, Place says.
“When ruminant animals are kept on those (fields), they allow for use of rotations and forage crops that can help improve soil health and water retention,” Place says.
Multifunctionality of land is another important consideration.
Place references the southern Great Plains as an area where multifunctionality works well. “Stocker cattle commonly graze winter wheat there until March or April. They are then removed, and the wheat is allowed to grow and be harvested for human food. In the milling process wheat provides byproducts that are then fed back to cattle, which are (then harvested for beef),” she says.
California almond “milk” and orange juice production are two other examples. Both provide byproducts that Place says are fed to dairy cattle that then produce milk and meat.
“For every 100 lb. of human food that comes from crops, 37 lb. of byproducts get generated,” she says. “That's a global average, and a lot of those byproducts can be fed back to livestock.”
3. What is the impact of U.S. agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)?
About 9% to 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, Place says. She notes that animal agriculture contributes about 4%, and crop production contributes about 5%.
“The single-largest source of emissions in the United States would be burning fossil fuels,” she says. “Somewhere around 75% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are because we are burning fossil fuels, and releasing CO2 (carbon dioxide) that was locked in the Earth's crust for a long time.”
4. How big an issue is methane production in the beef industry, and how do we address it?
Place says cattlemen are creating more beef today with fewer emissions.
“When cattle go to feedyards and eat a diet containing more fermentable carbohydrates like corn, they tend to reduce their methane emissions,” Place says.
“They’re more feed efficient. And part of that efficiency is a result of not losing as many feed calories to methane; we’re capturing more of them in the animal,” she adds. “Essentially, we’re producing the same amount of beef today as in the mid-1970s, with a third fewer cattle.”
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