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Beef Producers Can Reduce Environmental Impact

30 June 2011

US - When it comes to reducing the environmental impact of raising beef, the industry has come farther over the past 30 years than many people realise, according to a Washington State University scientist.

“The environmental impact of US beef production has been reduced by improved productivity,” said Judith Capper, assistant professor of dairy science at WSU. She spoke at the American Meat Science Association’s Reciprocal Meat Conference, hosted by Kansas State University June 19-22. “In 1977 it took five animals to produce the same amount of beef as four animals produced in 2007.”

“The majority of beef production’s environmental impact occurs on-farm,” Ms Capper said of the farm-to feedlot-to-processing system.

She acknowledged that opportunities to further improve beef yield per animal may be limited. Through genetic, feeding and management improvements, the amount of beef an animal yielded in 2007 averaged 773 pounds, well above the 603-pound average in 1977. In addition, the average number of days for a beef animal to reach slaughter weight was 482 in 2007, down from 606 days in 1977.

Capper cited a recent study that showed that in 2007:

  • 31 per cent more beef was produced than in 1977;
  • the number of beef animals was down 30 per cent from the total in 1977;
  • beef cattle consumed 19 per cent less feed than they did in 1977;
  • beef cattle consumed 14 per cent less water than beef cattle consumed in 1977;
  • beef cattle production used 34 per cent less land than it used in 1977;
  • beef cattle produced 20 per cent less manure than in 1977;
  • beef cattle produced 20 per cent less methane than in 1977;
  • beef cattle produced 11 per cent less nitrous oxide than in 1977; and
  • beef cattle production’s carbon footprint was 18 per cent less than in 1977.

Overall, in 2007, the beef cattle industry had 18 percent less impact on the environment than it had in 1977 – and it produced more beef, Ms Capper said.

She used the example of two vehicles – one of which is more fuel efficient than the other. However, by revealing that the less fuel efficient vehicle is a bus that can transport many more people per gallon of fuel than a small car that can transport two, it makes a person view challenges differently, she said.

“It’s essential to assess impact per unit of output rather than per unit of the production process,” she said.

When assessing which is better for the planet -- grass-fed, natural (production-enhancing technologies not used) or conventional (feedlot-finished), Ms Capper said she does not advocate for any particular group. However, removing technology from beef production considerably increases animal numbers and increases resource use and greenhouse gas emissions if attempting to keep output the same.

“If all US beef was grass-fed, it would increase land use by 53.1 million hectares, which is about 75 percent of the land area of Texas,” Ms Capper said. “It would increase water use by 1,733 billion litres, which is equal to annual usage by 46.3 million US households, and it would increase greenhouse gas emissions enough to equal annual emissions from 26.6 million US cars.”

Ms Capper said that incorrect data are sometimes used in newspaper and magazine articles which can lead to a bias in consumers’ food choices. She cited an example where studies that appeared in a major US magazine referred to beef production but the data came from other countries where practices are not as efficient as in the United States. For example, in Brazil only 62 per cent of beef cows produce a live calf, and cows are typically four years old at first calving.

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