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Conventional beef hits high grades for sustainability

Published on 15 November 2013
Dr. Jude Capper

It was as a 15-year-old vegetarian growing up in England that Dr. Jude Capper gained her first insight into the activist mindset: That the freedom to choose a food and lifestyle was worth fighting for.

Nowadays, she still defends that sentiment – only in favor of those wanting to eat meat.

“You can have your tofu, lentil burrito zucchini surprise for dinner, and that’s your choice,” said Capper. “But don’t push that choice on to me, and tell me that because you don’t eat beef, I shouldn’t eat it either, or pork or dairy.”

Capper, an adjunct professor with Washington State University, gave her latest presentation on the impact of technology in beef production to producers at the Idaho Cattle Association convention, Nov. 11 in Sun Valley.

Beef is defensible not just as a healthy dietary choice, she said. But the advances made in producing the popular protein are examples of sustainability from an environmental standpoint.

Capper said sustainable beef isn’t merely defined as “organic, grass-fed, local or natural” beef. Conventionally raised beef is also sustainable, “and will continue to be marketable and sustainable, so long as we have the tools to do it.”

While some critics target beef for its use of land and water, Capper said the cattle industry is the “ultimate recycling industry in terms of taking things we can’t use for anything else and making beef out of them.”

Most cattle today graze on land that is not suitable for crop production, development or recreation, with grazing strategies that keep the land healthy and usable for coming years. Then in the finishing stages, byproducts from other crops or food production are then fed to cattle rather than being wasted.

In raising cattle for healthy beef, the industry has targeted a worthy goal of producing more beef per head. Over a 30-year span, the average carcass produced went up from 603 pounds in 1977, to 773 pounds in 2007.

Capper said it took five animals in 1977 to produce the same amount of beef as four animals produced in 1997. But a producer in 1977 would need 1,005 more days on feed, and also use up more water and feed, while producing more waste.

Since 1977, the industry has created 131 percent more beef per animal, while raising 70 percent fewer animals. In 2007, inputs into that beef were 81 percent of the feed, 88 percent of the water, and 67 percent of the land utilized in 1977. Meanwhile manure, methane, nitrous oxide and overall carbon footprint were also anywhere between 82 and 88 percent of what was made in 1977.

Those metrics show how the beef industry can be efficient in the years ahead.

“Are we going to have cattle 4,000 pounds on a liveweight basis? Logically, that’s not going to happen,” Capper said. “We have more technology to improve growth rate, because if it takes fewer days from birth to slaughter to raise those animals, every day we save, we use less land, less water, less carbon, less fossil fuels and less greenhouse gas.”

Capper said today’s cattlemen have a variety of resources and strategies available to become more sustainable and efficient, especially related to a faster growth rate. Those methods include:

Upholding grain-fed beef
Capper said grass-fed beef remains a viable option for the consumer, especially those who prefer it to grain-fed beef. But whereas a grass-fed carcass produces 615 pounds after 679 days to slaughter, a conventionally raised animal produces 800 pounds on just 444 days to slaughter. Capper said the industry would need 64.6 million more head of grass-fed cattle than conventional cattle to raise 26.1 billion pounds of beef.

Grass-fed beef also would require 131 million more acres of more grazing land, and 469 billion gallons more of water.

Hormones and beta agonists
Implants and beta agonist supplements help increase growth rate for cattle, starting with hormone implants in calves, and finishing with beta agonists in fat cattle, Capper explained.

When used together, those tools reduce the time necessary to finish cattle by about 26 days. In that shorter amount of time, they also improve the hot carcass weight of an average animal by 109 pounds. That amount of production reduces the number of animals needed by 15.1 million head.

Presented another way, Capper said those technologies would provide enough extra beef from a single carcass to supply seven children with school lunches for a whole year. And that’s based on 2010 data. Since the USDA has reduced the caloric levels of a school lunch, the extra beef could feed even more children today.

Capper also estimated the cost of withdrawing the beta agonist Zilmax due to animal welfare concerns. Since coming off the shelves in mid-August, the industry has lost approximately $99.4 million in revenue.

Lean finely textured beef
The 2012 consumer pressure stirred up by food bloggers and the media against lean finely textured beef (LFTB) did not help make beef production more sustainable, Capper said, but rather wasted a resource of healthy protein.

The removal of LFTB by grocers and others increased retail prices by 1.6 percent and required the industry to find 1.7 million more head of cattle to replace the beef lost from LFTB.

Focus on sectors
Capper said the growth-enhancing tools have reduced beef’s environmental impact in feed, land and water usage by 10.7 percent. But most those efficiencies came from the backgrounder and feeder segments. All sectors of beef can continue to improve their sustainability. But because the cow-calf segment creates between 60 to 80 percent of the beef industry’s carbon footprint, it is the sector most able to improve.

“Because we have more animals per unit of output, we have more carbon,” Capper said of the cow-calf producers. “They make up a higher percentage of our total carbon footprint per pound of beef.”

To improve that rate of output, producers should push even more to improve upon the calving rate of 90 percent. Doing so would reduce production costs per unit of beef, and carbon emissions.

“The biggest thing we can do, whether we have 20 cows or 20,000 cows, whether Angus herd or Brahman, wherever we’re based, is to do our very best to have one calf per cow each year. If we don’t do that, those losses can’t be made up further down the chain.”

“If we suit our animals and systems to those resources, it doesn’t matter if we’re the fastest in the race, it’s about the most efficient use of what you’ve got in your system.” end mark

PHOTO
Jude Capper speaks to producers at the Idaho Cattle Association annual convention in Sun Valley, Nov. 11, 2013. Photo by David Cooper.

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