Sustainable win/win for beef

Farm Forum

Change often comes with a price, so when it’s intentional, outcome benefits should always outweigh costs.

That part of being “sustainable” certainly applies to ongoing efforts to reduce the beef system’s environmental impact. Research at Washington State University (WSU) led by animal scientist Robin White explored management practices to help in that quest while increasing profits for cattlemen. She continues that work today at Virginia Tech.

The effort began with the premise that reducing the carbon footprint is an incomplete goal.

“If we’re going to ask people to take steps to lessen the environmental impact of their operations, we certainly hope we can show that those steps will improve their efficiency and profitability,” White said.

A resulting paper, “Cow-calf reproductive, genetic and nutritional management to improve the sustainability of whole beef production systems,” was published in the 2015 Journal of Animal Science.

The team explored changes in greenhouse gas (GHG) production as well as improvements in land and water use for management practices recommended for sustainability. Those included sire selection through artificial insemination (AI) or natural service, environmentally optimized nutrition, selection for twinning and reducing the calving window through early weaning.

While all offered some sustainability advantages over the least-cost model, some practices were more viable than others.

Twinning showed a much higher amount of beef produced per cow, the greatest reduction in water use (17.6%), moderate improvements in both GHG emissions (9.2%) and reduced land use (9.2%). However, it brought along problems with cows claiming and caring for both calves, added labor cost and infrastructure changes, the paper noted.

“Your cost of increasing that output is so high it doesn’t make sense anymore, versus something like selecting superior sires,” White added. “We can invest in quality semen, and that’s been shown time and time again to be very efficient.”

Indeed, sustainability improved the most – more than 11% for each parameter – for the individual practices of selecting superior sires with balanced maternal, performance and carcass traits. Where AI is a labor and timing challenge, the natural-service model was nearly equal in sustainability improvement, just 0.2% behind AI.

The paper noted early weaning at 150 days offered an across-the-board reduction (8.5%) in land and water use and lower GHG production. Prior research showed placing calves on a high-energy diet early in life allows for enhanced marbling as well, but early weaning may be best implemented when the environment (i.e. drought) causes nutritional stress or when young cows need extra nourishment.

Moving the herd from an 80- to a 60-day calving window was one of the least effective practices noted in the WSU research, but it improved land use and GHG emissions by 3.2% and reduced water use by 3.6%. The relatively small changes link to the short duration of the practice, but improved uniformity pays.

“A lot of producers end up pushing that window out because they’re not getting cattle bred on time, but then end up weaning all of their calves at the same time, leaving some younger than they should be at weaning,” White said. “If you shorten that calving window, you end up with a more unified calf crop and, on average, heavier animals,” both typically adding value in the market.

The recommended management practices work best in concert, rather than implemented individually; they are interdependent.

“It only makes sense,” White said. “You can purchase the best semen in the world but if your cows aren’t conceiving or they’re malnourished, your growing animals can’t meet their genetic potential.”

Research showed that when superior sire selection was used within a controlled calving season, sustainability was indeed maximized. GHG emissions were reduced and land use improved, both by 13.4%, while water use improved by 12.4%. When these reproductive and genetic strategies were paired with optimal nutrition, all three outputs improved by 14.5%.

The model used when testing superior sire selection focused on calving ease, enhancing reproduction and carcass yield, all the while improving post-weaning gain. Sire selection is a key opportunity for continuous improvements in sustainability, White said.

Consumer demand for sustainable food systems continues to grow.

“We’re not trying to advocate for another beef label,” she added. Research simply shows consumers are interested in environmental impact, and tacking sustainability onto an existing quality product is one way to garner more consumer dollars.

Combining the recommended practices (twinning aside) adds up to improved sustainability while satisfying the increasing demand for premium beef. Cattlemen can even earn more dollars in the bargain.