By Drew Slattery

Sustainable Beef 101

July 12, 2021

Understanding the pillars that make beef production sustainable. 

No matter what it is in reference to, the word “sustainable” almost always comes with some baggage attached to it. It is a polarizing term, defined and perceived differently by each individual.

Helping ranchers understand what is meant by the term is key in advancing work towards a better beef system. 

Sustainability Defined

The US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef defines sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound, and economically viable product that prioritizes planet, people, animals, and progress. But how does all that translate to ranch-level production and management? 

The roundtable has defined 6 key pillars that support this (taken from their resource hub here) –   

  • Water resources
    • Managed grazing can reduce the amount of water required to sprout and grow plants, extend the growing phase of those plants, and increase the diversity of plant species in the pasture. It can also increase water infiltration into the soil, slowing runoff, reducing erosion, and storing water in the ground, which extends the life of springs, creeks, and other riparian areas. Many of the same practices that produce healthier pastures have been shown to protect the quality of the water and integrity of riparian areas.
    • In practice, this means having a grazing management plan (or equivalent) in place to maintain and/or improve water resources. 
  • Land resources
    • Cattle producers’ management decisions and activities can directly impact the health of pastures on which the cattle graze. The maintenance, improvement and protection of land resources in a cow-calf operation is fundamental to all aspects of beef sustainability, from the economic bottom line of optimizing forages, to the health of the animals and natural resources.
    • In practice this means having a grazing management plan (or equivalent) in place to protect and/or improve the land resources, including succession/transition planning. 
  • Air and greenhouse gas emissions
    • Cattle producers’ management decisions and activities can directly impact the health of pastures on which the cattle graze. The health of these pastures affects water retention and quality, soil health and ecological function, as well as carbon sequestration.
    • In practice this means having a grazing management plan (or equivalent) in place to protect or improve soil and plant community health, including soil carbon sequestration.
  • Efficiency and yield
    • Improving the efficiency and yield of the cow-calf sector involves consideration and optimization of every facet of the operation, including maximizing efficiency of the animal converting inputs (forages, grains) into a high-quality protein, improving reproductive efficiencies, and minimizing waste (resources, time and capital). To aid in the optimization of animal productivity, a cow-calf producer should implement an operation-specific strategy.
    • In practice, this means having a strategy in place to optimize animal productivity through improved nutrition, reproduction, genetics, technologies and practices appropriate to their operational goals and context 
  • Animal health and well-being
    • Ranchers have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure, to the best of their ability, the health and well-being of the livestock in their care.
    • In practice, this means adopting Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) or similar program principles into the operations management. 
  • Employee safety and well-being
    • Protection and improvement of employee safety and well-being is of paramount importance to the operation’s viability. These procedures will not only protect the employee, but, if done properly, will improve the health and welfare of the animal as well.
    • In practice this means that all individuals who are involved in the operation are trained in stockmanship and safety, and implementing these practices. 

Grazing Management Plan – Many Birds; One Stone

A common thread running through several of the pillars of sustainable beef production is the development and implementation of a “grazing management plan”. Similar to a nutrient management plan in row crop production, this plan details how the interface between the animals and the land are managed. 

An easy first step for ranchers, regardless of the type or size of operation they run, is to sit down and document their annual management plans. Once everything is laid out, they can then begin to see where gaps might be that need addressing. It also enables them to have something to judge the year’s performance against and provide critical measures for continuous improvement year over year. 

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