Defining sustainability for South Dakota’s grass and livestock industry

Farm Forum

How do we mesh grassland conservation, birds, forage, and cattle? Fortunately, it all fits together quite nicely if we are willing to keep a few key principals and ethics in mind. Let’s start with ‘sustainability’.

Sustainability. It’s a very popular word, but what does it really mean? Back in March the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef attempted to steer the discussion on sustainable beef through their widely distributed paper on the topic. While stopping short of defining sustainable beef, they did offer five core principals of sustainability to consider including: natural resources; people and community; animal health and welfare; food; and efficiency and innovation. Further, they went on to promote the concepts of the ‘triple bottom line’ approach to sustainability in regard to social responsibility, environmental soundness, and economic viability. In the end, the report acknowledges the complexities involved in trying to define what sustainable means at a local scale.

Sustainability not only implies good intent but also an understanding of actions, impacts, and improvements. Technically, Webster defines sustainability as: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods. Not bad, but in truth the word sustainability means something different to everyone when referring to the grass and beef industry. To some it means they have a constant supply of product. To others, it means they’ve achieved a desired state of success in production methods. Still to others, achieving sustainability is simply not enough. They want to do more than just sustain, they want to expand, improve, and increase profitability in dollars, time management, natural resources, and family life.

I’m just returning from a sustainable beef workshop hosted by the World Wildlife Fund in partnership with the South Dakota Grassland Coalition. Partnership—it’s a critical component of sustainability in my opinion. Partners often lead to friendships, and friendships usually result in positive outcomes. For two and a half days we were privileged to hear from partners representing beef producers, conservation organizations, government agencies, educators, and national processors and retailers on what sustainability means in relation to South Dakota’s livestock and grassland industry.

Early on, it became obvious that sustainability would not be easily defined at this gathering. Few of the roughly 50 attendees felt that they had a good definition for sustainability—even fewer offered to articulate one. What came out of this meeting was an underlying tone of respect and admiration from the corporate partners for our grass and beef producers and an acknowledgment by all that significant challenges do exist, even in these relatively good times of profitable beef. The corporate partners had no desire to define what sustainability might mean for our back yard. Rather, they preferred that we as South Dakotans define what sustainability means for South Dakota.

So, was the meeting a failure because sustainability remained undefined? No – quite the opposite. Although there was not a specific definition of what sustainability is, it was relatively easy for the group to define what sustainability is not. As a general consensus, sustainability for South Dakota’s livestock industry is directly depended on if, how, and when we are able to ensure the future of our native and non-native grasslands through ethical use, protection from conversion, and even grassland expansion. Diving deeper, sustainability in South Dakota will hinge on the principals of soil conservation, minimizing erosion, and ensuring water quality. For a guy like me who came from the conservation world to hear a bunch of ranchers, conservationists, national meat retailers, government employees, and ag educators all singing the same tune gives me renewed hope that we can elevate the future value of our grassland resources for ourselves, our kids, and our dinner plates.

We took a break from the meeting room to visit a couple of grazing operations that are utilizing quite different models to achieve their ranch sustainability and improvement goals. Pat and Mary Lou Guptill and their children run an intensive grazing rotation on a portion of their ranch near Quinn, SD. The Guptill’s treated the group to in-pasture demonstrations on the mechanics, objectives, and results of their grazing rotation. While their ranch is primarily comprised of introduced (tame) grasses and legumes, their goals and management philosophies point them toward continuous restoration and improvement.

Leaving the Guptill’s, we visited the Shorty Jones family ranch near Midland. This multi-generational, multi-family ranch, while practicing somewhat different grazing methods, also was focused squarely on care of the land and retention of grasslands as a top priority. Both the Guptills and the Jones’ operations put a premium on animal well-being, even though they utilized different methods in achieving their animal welfare goals. The Guptill’s and Jones’ consistent views on the sustainability of soils, grass, animal health and family values easily outshines differences in tools or application methods, suggesting strongly that what sustainability is has much more to do with the principals of a good land ethic than it does with ear tags, branding techniques, or fly control. None of it matters without grass under foot!!

As we continued through the agenda, we participated in well-moderated panel discussions focused on threats to grasslands and perspectives on the beef supply chain. In both cases, corporate partners shared honest opinions on economic drivers, food safety, and food security while listening to and ultimately agreeing with the broad consensus that ensuring profitability, safety, and security hinges on grass. In addition, the national retailers threw the honest challenge back to South Dakota to continue to work in partnership between our in-state interests to define what makes South Dakota beef sustainable and help create the messages necessary to move our sustainably raised beef products out to the marketplace.

Ultimately, what I heard is that there is room for all types of operations in this arena. Whether your backgrounding or finishing, raising seed stock or experimenting with grass-finished beef, the underlying tone is that South Dakota’s success in beef is dependent on our ability increase the value of our grasslands through development of the correct suite of circumstances that will eliminate the practices of converting our existing native grasslands and marginal lands to uses that are incompatible with the long-term sustainability of our landscapes. In light of this, it is important that producers think critically about the individual role of their beef operations in the greater landscape. To help this process, there are more opportunities and information available today for producers to get educated and get involved in partnerships than ever before. Achieving and going beyond sustainability will require taking advantage of these resources and opportunities.

How does one begin to become sustainable? I suggest starting with low risk, high return investments. I’m not talking dollars, but rather information and education. Visit SDSU iGrow, SD NRCS, US Fish and Wildlife Service, SD Game, Fish, and Parks, or the SD Grassland Coalition websites and explore what is available. Consider joining the SD Grassland Coalition and/or taking advantage of their great programs such as the annual Bird Tour, Leopold Tour, and ranch tours. Participate in affordable education opportunities such as SDSU Extension courses and programs, SD Grassland Coalition’s Grazing School, or local range, pasture, or grassland events. Finally, take a kid out on pasture and give them the freedom to explore and ask questions…who knows, you might discover that you need answers to those same questions. Sustainability need not be overwhelming, but it does require action. It starts with those of us who rely on South Dakota’s grassland resources. Most of us do. Good luck and keep the grass under your feet!