Is Eating Beef Bad for the Earth? The Ups and Downs of the Beef on Your Plate

Earth Day is a wonderful thing. We can all use a day dedicated to reflection on each of our own individual impacts on the earth’s health. That being said, it can be difficult to wade through the conflicting advice of what is (in actual fact) good for the environment. Searching online can lead to what I call “Google Diving – The New Era of Dumpster Diving”, because you have to sort through a lot of garbage before you can find those golden nuggets of fact.

Last week’s Earth Day brought about numerous articles, blog posts and media stories with lots of advice. Some suggested that going meatless was one way each of us could reduce our environmental footprint. Seeing beef production from my side made me automatically question the validity of that statement, so I decided to do a little digging, and find out what beef’s impact really looks like to dear Mother Earth. What I found did not surprise me. Beef production does have an impact – of course, everything does!! But here is the kicker – beef has both NEGATIVE and POSITIVE environmental impacts, and both must be taken into consideration when looking at the whole.

The Canadian beef industry does produce greenhouse gasses. Our cattle use water and use up land base, take food (such as barley) out of the human food system, and can pollute water with ammonia, phosphorous, manure and bacteria. These are facts that no one will dispute. But what is missing is the other half of our “hoofprint” – the good half. Luckily, we are not all just feedlots and burping cattle.

Did you know that in Canada, one in three acres of agricultural land is not suitable for growing crops but is suitable for raising cattle? Beef cattle also use feed that would otherwise be wasted, as it is not suitable for human consumption. Eighty percent of feed eaten by Canadian cattle are grasses that are inedible to people, and another 10 percent are grains that are deemed too poor of quality to enter the human food chain. Cattle producers are an opportunistic bunch – we will take whatever grains people do not want to eat and make a lovely, nutritious feed ration for our cattle. It is a great environmental impact to be able to take low quality forages and convert them to high quality protein for humans. Consider us the original recyclers; taking frozen, ugly and unwanted barley and turning it into steak!

Beef cattle management has changed dramatically in the past few decades. Improved management practices have not only allowed Canada to become an international beef production leader, but has also had enormous environmental benefits. These management practices have increased the amount of beef produced per acre, reduced the amount of feed and water required to raise each animal, reduced days to slaughter, which in turn reduces manure and greenhouse gasses produced.

Please excuse the American graphic, but it is just as applicable to my ranch here in Canada. Management decisions that make sense financially also must make sense environmentally. Recent cattle management evolutions, such as bale grazing, not only reduce labour requirements, but also dramatically improve soil quality and allow us a method of rejuvenating at risk soils. Spreading manure from our feedlot on hill tops not only improves those degraded soils, but also keeps manure and bacteria away from wetlands and waterways. Beef cattle management is getting better everyday, and that is great for the environment!

COWS EQUAL GRASS

Grazing cattle are an integral part of both the beef industry as well as the natural grassland ecosystem. On our ranch, breeding cows spend 99% of their lives out on pasture. These vast rolling acres of perennial forages (grasses and alfalfa) are a huge benefit to dear Mother Earth. As well as what I can see from my ranch porch, I found some very interesting Canadian facts from the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC).

Our grasslands provide needed habitat for displaced wildlife and birds. Since seeding the majority of our farm down to perennial forages, we have seen a huge increase in not only populations of wildlife, but a huge increase in diversity of species as well. Some, like moose, are neat to see, but seeing endangered or threatened species that make their home on your land is downright heartwarming. We have seen burrowing owls, whooping cranes, prairie chickens and swift fox. Local deer are very much confused. They do not believe we operate a cattle ranch. If you have ever driven past the feed yard from December to March you will clearly see that they believe it is a white tail deer ranch, and we live to serve them breakfast, lunch and dinner. From salamanders to coyotes to moose – our grasslands provide a safe home.

Forage and grasslands are good for the air and the soil. Alfalfa is perhaps the most common and favorite forage feed for cattle. Alfalfa not only produces its own nitrogen, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers, it also has an amazing tap-root system that can grow as deep as 20 feet to find water in dry years. This amazing tap-root can force its way through hardpan soil, loosening the layers for future plants. Many grain producers use alfalfa in their annual crop rotation as a way of improving the soil health. All this, and cows think it’s delicious!

Did you know that Canadian grasslands sequester (capture, hold and store) carbon emissions of 3.62 million cars per year? Yes, you’re welcome Urbanites! The grasses that my cattle need are taking the pollution from your mini-van and storing it away from where it could destroy the ozone. I think I may have a big juicy steak tonight to celebrate that!

Over-all, it is clear to me that beef producers still must consider their environmental impacts when making management decisions. In any food system there is capacity to cause either great harm or great good to the environment. I feel one hundred percent confident stating that with the use of cattle and forages, the land we are in care of is in better health today than that which we purchased it in, and it will be in even better health tomorrow. When looking at the Canadian beef cattle industry as a whole, I feel confident in eating my beef guilt-free. So pass the steak!

For more info go to where I got my facts:
beefresearch.ca
farmfoodcare.org

Earth Day on the Ranch

At first, I thought Earth Day here on the ranch was just like every other day. After all, every day we provide habitat for misplaced wildlife, everyday we sequester carbon in our vast acres of grassland, everyday we aim to improve the soil structure and health. 

But when I thought a little harder, and looked a little deeper, I realized that although we have the earth’s health in the back of our mind all year round, Earth Day is a reminder of so much more. 

A Time Of New Beginnings 

April is when our heifers calve.  By Earth Day (April 22nd) we are just into calving. This year we have 12 calves on the ground (1088 to go!). The birth of new calves is always a wonderful thing, but the first few born each year are extra special. 

  

When these calves are born from the heifers that were raised in our own herd, it is a full circle moment to see them start out so healthy and strong. 

Beyond the obvious new beginnings of calving, spring is full of new beginnings all over the ranch, you just need to look a little closer to see them. 

  

Delicate new shoots of grass are bursting up from amid the old dead leaves. The sound of croaking frogs is a constant song in the background of every cow-checking trip. Pussy Willows have erupted their incredibly soft buds, begging to be picked and displayed in the house.  In spring, even the most old things seem new again. 

A Moment of Reflection 

Earth Day reminds us to take the time to have a closer look at our impact on the world around us. As much as we believe we are doing a great job at being Stewards of the Earth, there is always more to be done. Can we tweek our grazing plan to improve the longevity of our grassland, reducing the need for rejuvenation (and all the fossil fuel and chemical use that goes with it)? Can we change our herd health program to better keep the animals in our care in the best health possible? Can we manage and reduce the drainage on our land to have minimal impact on the land down the road? 

Earth Day is a reminder that of all the answers we have found over the years, sometimes you still need to ask some hard questions. If I have ever learned one hard final answer in Agriculture, it is that no one has all the answers. So we will takes these new beginnings, and be grateful for them. After all, I hope that someday our great-great grandchildren have the opportunity to ask hard questions of themselves on Earth Day.