From the Rancher’s Mouth: Beef Cattle and the Environment

Confession: my husband, kids and I hardly ever eat beef. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I bought beef at the store. Not that I don’t like beef – I occasionally enjoy a good hamburger at a restaurant and when we visit my parents I often request steak because my dad cooks a good steak.  Part of the reason we don’t eat much beef is because we only eat meat about 50 percent of the time. My husband used to be a vegetarian because he believes with our growing population it’s more efficient to eat a plant-based diet instead of using resources to raise animals for us to eat. Since having kids, he’s relaxed his approach because getting protein into kids is hard enough without the added difficulty of doing it without meat. As a compromise, when I plan the weekly menu, half of it is vegetarian. When we do eat meat, we don’t usually choose beef because cows are fairly resource-intense to raise (and, frankly, it’s often more expensive than chicken.)

At least, that’s what we think. In complete fairness, I’ve not spent a lot of time looking at the data, so when a cattle rancher with a degree in Environmental Studies agreed to share her perspective on the environmental impact of raising beef cattle, I was really excited. The below guest post by Cassidy  is a bit of an introduction into the environmental conversation around raising beef. Admittedly, this is one perspective on the conversation, and I plan to come back to this issue again in the future. But it’s an important perspective from a very intelligent, well-researched source, and I learned a lot about cattle ranching that I never knew. I hope you learn something new, too. (All pictures courtesy of Cassidy.)

Cassidy lives and works with her husband and six-month-old son on a cattle ranch in east central Colorado, where they raise registered Angus, Red Angus, Hereford and Charolais cattle. She has a B.A. in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When they’re not messing with cows, horses or dogs or playing with their roly-poly kiddo, she likes to cook, read, do DIY projects, and cover as many surfaces as possible in plaid and/or glitter. 

–By Cassidy —

I’ve started and almost finished this post many times, but haven’t ever been happy with the result. I struggled with how to format it in a way that wasn’t too wordy while also being direct and informative and as unbiased as possible. The best I could come up with is a broad FAQ of sorts, because I get asked the same questions over and over. This is a very brief overview of a very complicated topic.

Just a disclaimer, I am going to be talking about beef ranching only. I’m also not going to be discussing feedlots—that’s a separate (though very much related) issue.

As a cattle rancher, how do you feel about the argument that people need to eat less beef?
I think people need to eat less (and waste less!) period, beef included. A quarter-pounder contains more than enough calories for a meal; do you really need to supersize it and add more of everything? And how much of that 16-oz steak are you going to eat, and how much are you going to throw away? This country as a whole struggles with consumerism and health, so cutting back across the board—not just in beef—seems to be a good idea to me.

But beef is the least feed-efficient animal, and they take up so many resources!

Flour the baby calf.

Flour the baby calf.

Again, true. Of the four main meat animals (fish, chicken, pigs, cattle), beef is the least feed-efficient animal; that is, it takes more pounds of feed to make one pound of meat (Johnston 2012). Cattle are larger than fish, chicken and pigs and thus take up more room and require more input just to maintain themselves. However, 85 percent of the land where cattle are raised is unsuitable for farming (Explore Beef 2009), so cows are a way to make that land work for us from a food production perspective, while maintaining natural beauty and wide-open spaces.

Another cool thing about wide-open spaces, besides the natural environment for wildlife and just seeing nature do its thing? Carbon sequestration! Grasslands, like forests, are carbon sinks, and some research shows that grasslands produce more in an environment higher in carbon dioxide (North Carolina State University 2001). Grasses require disturbance—grazing—to remain healthy, so well-managed grazing actually helps the environment; I talk more about this in the next section.

Isn’t livestock ranching bad for the environment? Ranchers only care about the bottom line, not the land.
Livestock ranching as it relates to climate change and land use is a big deal. A study by the FAO shows the impact livestock have on the environmental health of our planet (FAO 2006). As a rancher who holds a degree in Environmental Studies from CU Boulder, I get it, I really do. But no, well-managed ranching is not bad for the environment (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2008, Explore Beef 2009). The key here is the management, and the American ranching industry has made huge leaps and bounds in the past several decades as far as management is concerned. On government lands, for instance, land health is monitored closely. In years of environmental duress or when the rangeland in question is not up to standard, the number of animals allowed on the permit may be decreased, or a rest period may be implemented (Wiles 2014).

However, it’s hard to get a real read on the nation’s rangeland health as a whole. This article explains it much better than I can.

Ranching and the environment are very closely related—they have to be! Yes, ranchers care about the bottom line. They have to; a ranch is a business. But, ranchers are also stewards of the land, and the health of the environment is often the same as the health of the bottom line. How? Well, ranchers make a large portion of their income (if not all their income) selling cattle. Good grass makes for healthy cattle that produce better milk and raise bigger calves. Since cattle that will be eaten (feeder cattle) are bought and sold by the pound, this is important. Good grass also makes for big, strong, healthy bulls and replacement heifers (yearling heifers chosen to stay in the herd to replace old or culled cattle), which will increase their value to a prospective buyer. Poor grazing management is economically counterproductive, since bad management means less or poorer quality grass which translates to less weight gained or value added.

The environment, of course, includes the water, too. The area where land and a river or stream meets is called a riparian area. Managing this area is, in my opinion, one of the weaker links, but it’s also one of the areas where improvements are being pushed the hardest. Riparian areas are hard to manage, because they’re where cows like to be. It’s cool, there’s water, and the grass is tasty, so it’s not easy to convince the girls that they don’t need to hang out by the creek all the time.

Fenced off pond.

Fenced off pond.

We manage this by giving cows other water sources, and use windmill- and solar-powered water pumps to pump water into tanks fitted with overflow floats or ground tanks so they don’t overflow and get muddy. We also fence off particularly sensitive or boggy areas—sometimes just as much for the cows’ benefit, because cows can get bogged down and stuck and will die if you don’t get to them in time, and it can be pretty dangerous and exhausting work to pull a stuck cow out of a bog. We also use salt and mineral strategically to lure cows away from creeks to water tanks that are easier to manage. When all else fails, the cowboys will ride the creek every day, and push the cows away.

If ranching were all about the bottom line, no one would do it. It’s not a job; it’s truly a lifestyle that you have to enjoy to keep at it. The hours are long and the work is hard, and it’s definitely not as romantic as it seems. My husband and I have never held hands riding off into the sunset on our horses, but we have held (gloved) hands in the pickup checking calves all night long during a blizzard.

I’ve read that cows produce a lot of methane, which is a major greenhouse gas.
Also true! Cows are ruminants and enteric fermentation (methane production) is a natural by-product of their digestive processes, enteric fermentation from beef cattle accounts for about 19 percent of annual US methane emissions (United States Environmental Protection Agency, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions 2009). That’s a big number, but it bears mentioning that while methane is the more potent greenhouse gas, it only accounts for ten percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The beef industry is working on making animals more efficient in how they process feed—more moderate-framed, high feed-efficiency cattle that don’t require as much input. Our primary goal in choosing herd sires and replacement heifers for our ranch is frame size and efficiency. Our ranch is part of a larger group of ranches, and we provide the bulls to all the other ranches. Choosing moderate-framed bulls with high feed efficiency makes a big impact across all of the ranches, since there are over 16,000 cows. This means that there are 16,000 cows annually that are going to produce a more moderate-framed calf, thus producing less methane and using fewer resources. It also means that we are choosing replacement heifers from a more moderately-sized group of calves. The end goal is to have a very moderately-sized, highly efficient herd that is effective from both an economic and environmental standpoint: smaller, more efficient cattle use fewer resources and produce less methane.

Summer grass meadow.

Summer grass meadow.

One thing to mention here though is that I often hear that grass-fed beef is the better option both health-wise and environmentally. Keep in mind that cattle that are finished on grass rather than grain not only produce more methane because grass is harder to digest (Jones 2014), but because grass-finished cattle live anywhere from 6-16 months longer (Brady 2014) because it takes them longer to reach slaughter weight. This means that they consume more grass, water and space, too.

Isn’t it unfair that one person can own so much land and not allow it to be available for public use?
The ranch that my husband and I work for is about 50 miles away from a large city, with lots of smaller towns in between, and the owner buys up land as it comes up for sale so that it doesn’t get sold to developers. This means that the ranch is not even close to being contiguous, but I think it’s pretty neat because he’s working so hard to make sure that there’s some open spaces left for our children to see.

I know that there are people who have negative opinions about private land ownership, because that land isn’t open to the public for use. While I understand that argument, I think that the end result is more important, and if private citizens have to buy land to save it from being turned into 40-acre lots for homes and subdivisions, then so be it.

What’s more environmentally friendly: 80,000 acres of open land with a herd of cattle grazing, and a handful of houses and barns, or 40-acres with a house and a barn and a shop and a cement driveway with a horse “pasture” that’s eaten down to dirt and weeds? The latter might seem extreme, but it’s what I drive past every single day on my way to the office at headquarters, and it breaks my heart to see so little respect for the environment by the same people who condemn us, their neighbors, for raising cattle.

Winter pasture.

Winter pasture.

Just a tip: if you want to hike, or ride your horse, or just see a ranch, write a letter or email to the manager (I would say call, but lots of ranches are sans reliable phone service!) and ask for access or a tour. They may say no, of course, as is their right, but it’s a better course of action than trespassing, which is not only illegal but will guarantee the denial of future access.

Sources:

Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. (2008, April). Grazing Management Adjustments for Healthy Rangelands. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from ESRD: http://esrd.alberta.ca/lands-forests/grazing-range-management/documents/GrazingManagementHealthyRangelands-2008.pdf

Brady, J. (2014). Why Grass Finished Is Important. Retrieved July 27, 2015, from Brady’s Idaho Beef: http://www.bradysbeef.com/grass-finished-beef.html

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. (October 2009). Enteric Fermentation Mitigation. Retrieved July 27, 2015, from Center for Climate and Energy Solutions: http://www.c2es.org/docUploads/Enteric-Fermentation-09-09.pdf

Explore Beef. (2009, April). Cattle Ranching and Environmental Stewardship. Retrieved July 15, 2015, from Explore Beef: http://www.explorebeef.org/environment.aspx

FAO. (2006, November 29). Livestock a major threat to environment. Retrieved June 15, 2015, from FAO Newsroom: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/News/2006/1000448/index.html

Johnston, G. (2012, 2 2). Why is beef losing ground to chicken? Retrieved June 15, 2015, from Agriculture.com: http://www.agriculture.com/livestock/cattle/why-is-beef-losing-ground-to-chicken_276-ar21983

Jones, M. (2014, February). Ways to Reduce Methane Production in Cattle. Retrieved July 26, 2015, from UNL Beef: http://beef.unl.edu/reduce-methane-production-cattle

North American Meat Institute. (2011, March). The United States Meat Industry at a Glance. Retrieved July 7, 2015, from North American Meat Institute: https://www.meatinstitute.org/index.php?ht=d/sp/i/47465/pid/47465

North Carolina State University. (2001, January 15). Scientists Find That Grasslands Can Act as Carbon Sinks. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/01/010111073831.htm

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2013). Overview of Greenhouse Gases. Retrieved 8 2015, July, from EPA.gov: http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases.html

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2013). Overview of Greenhouse Gases: Methane Emissions. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from EPA.gov: http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html

USDA. (1996, August). Rangeland Health. Retrieved July 18, 2015, from Natural Resources Conservation Service Maryland: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/md/home/?cid=nrcs143_014218

Wiles, T. (2014, November 12). A new map shows rangeland health West-wide. Retrieved July 18, 2015, from High Country News: https://www.hcn.org/articles/BLM-rangeland-health-grazing-cattle-environment

 

 

 

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One Response to From the Rancher’s Mouth: Beef Cattle and the Environment

  1. Andrew Burchett

    Great post–we’ll be having roast beef and root vegetables tomorrow for Sunday dinner (lunch).

    Andrew

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