Beef Sustainability: Balancing Environmental, social and economic impacts

Sustainability is not a destination. It is a continuous journey being carried out by each generation of farmers and ranchers responsible for raising and supplying beef across the world. To the beef community, sustainability comprises much more than environmental considerations. Today, a sustainable food supply balances efficient production with environmental, social and economic impacts.

Let’s take a look at how today’s farmers and ranchers are contributing to a more sustainable food supply.

Sustainability Assessment

To better understand sustainability across the entire beef lifecycle, from pasture to plate, cattlemen and women invested in a first-of-its-kind life cycle assessment (LCA). This rigorous assessment worked to provide benchmarks on economic, environmental and social contributions of the cattle industry in the U.S. and a roadmap for the journey toward more sustainable beef.

From 2005 to 2011, improvements in crop yields, machinery technology, irrigation techniques, fertilizer management, nutrition and animal performance have resulted in lowering the environmental footprint of raising beef and have greatly improved the overall level of farm sustainability. Increased adoption of Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) protocols – an industry-developed program that provides ranchers with the latest cattle management techniques – and other industry-led animal handling programs have improved our social sustainability. As greater efficiencies in crop production and animal handling become available, on-farm sustainability will continue to improve.

The next assessment is now being expanded to include data from seven different regions across the country. This research will help cattlemen and women continue down the path toward an even more sustainable approach to raising beef. 

"I want to ensure that future generations of my family will be able to feed future generations of America. I do my part in ensuring that by managing resources both for what’s needed today and what will be right for tomorrow."— Brad Bellah, Rancher, Throckmorton, TX

Sustainability at the Feedyard

Raising beef responsibly is a priority for farmers and ranchers, which includes a strong focus on sustainability efforts at feedyards. Take a look at this video from a Texas cattle feeder to see examples of these efforts.

"Sustainability is, in my opinion, the essence of efficiency. I believe feedyards are always looking for ways to do things better and to be more responsible with the resources we have."— Tom McDonald, Cattle Feeder, Texas.

Your Role in Sustainability

You also have opportunities to contribute to more a sustainable food supply. Approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted. The food an average American family wastes translates into about $2500 per year. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), beef is one of the least wasted foods, with 20 percent spoiled or not eaten, but that still leaves a lot of room for improvement! If beef waste were cut in half, the sustainability of the whole industry could be improved by 10 percent. Consider how you’ll use leftovers and make sure your appliances are running efficiently. Also, make sure to check out our tips for safely storing and preparing beef at home.

"The land on this farm has provided for many families in its 100+ years with Ruskamp caretakers. It has allowed us to thrive! When it comes to sustainability, I view that as part of my responsibility as the current caretaker. We must treat the land with respect and feed cattle in a way that allows them to thrive while having the best impact possible on the environment around us."– Joan Ruskamp, Rancher, Dodge, NE.

Beyond the Beef

Beyond delicious and nutritious steaks, roasts and burgers, there are hundreds of uses for cattle by-products. Do you own a car, take a bus or ride a bike? If so, you’re utilizing by-products in the tires on your vehicle and the asphalt on the road. Even items that may seem trivial, such as dyes, inks, adhesives and plastics are made from cattle by-products.

Here are a few ways in which cattle by-products touch our lives:

  • Hides from cattle are tanned into leather becoming shoes, purses and wallets.
  • Cattle organs and glands are used in the production of medicine, insulation, antifreeze, shampoos/conditioners and instrument strings.
  • Photo film, vitamin capsules, charcoal and glass are all derived from bones and horns of cattle.
  • Inedible beef fat provides us with airplane lubricants, hydraulic brake fluid, biodiesel and medicines.

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