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Small Farmers and Water: Necessities For Tomorrow's Beef

23 April 2015

GLOBAL - Efforts to drive cattle sector sustainability must not neglect small operations and should prioritise water resources, a science conference heard last week.

Carbon might be the “cool, sexy thing” at the moment, but water conservation is going to jostle for headline space in the future, according to leading livestock sustainability consultant Dr Jude Capper.

Dr Capper sees water as the front and centre issue in the coming years. 

She told British Society of Animal Science delegates in Chester, UK, that a sustainable beef industry rests as much in the hands of the small producer as it does the "massive operations". 

She surprised delegates by revealing that the current average US herd size is just 40 cows. 

She admitted that, while beef production has its critics, sustainable agriculture can benefit from being hung on a "three E's framework" – Environment, Ethics and Economics.

Referring to the work of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and various regional iterations, Dr Capper said: “Its not just a case of convincing the focus guys with one thousand head of cattle or more, its about convincing everyone in the supply chain.”

All cattlemen have a responsibility to improve performance every day, she added.

Looking back at progress made in life cycle productivity, she said five cows in 1977 produced the beef of four cows today, pointing to a carcass weight increase of almost 90 kilos in less than 40 years.

She queried whether weights could continue, possibly reaching 413 kilos by 2034.

There were, however, controversial aspects, particularly in the US and role of technologies in terms of producing such heavy carcasses, she explained.

“A conflict exists between producers’ need to optimize efficiency within the confines of their operation, and the social acceptability of cattle production,” said Dr Capper.

“Public concern is mounting over the use of hormones, antibiotics and parasite control within beef production and natural or organic options are increasing their market share.”

However, she stressed the productivity drop if drugs are taken out of some systems. Without effective parasite control, calving rate drops from 90 to 80 per cent and weaning weights drop 20 kilos from 248 to 227 kilos, she stressed.

This is at a cost to daily weight gain of 0.2 kilos per day.

Dr Capper has observed growing consumer awareness of ionophores, beta-agonists and hormones as well as several “anti-campaigns” challenging beef on water, carbon and economic arguments.

She questioned the logic in consumers being happy to have drugs in pet animals but not in cattle.

Considering resource management in the future, she said: “Carbon is the cool sexy thing at the moment but water will become really important in the next five or ten years.”

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Michael Priestley

Michael Priestley
News Team - Editor

Mainly production and market stories on ruminants sector. Works closely with sustainability consultants at FAI Farms


Top image via Shutterstock

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