Beef: Responsibly raised and handled from pasture to plate

landscape grazing cows on a farm

From The Beef Checkoff.

Taking care of the earth, people and animals is all in day’s work for members of the beef community. They strive to conserve water, soil and air quality, use energy and resources wisely, treat animals humanely and create economic opportunity for their communities. These commitments are passed down from generation to generation of cattle farmers and ranchers and honored by many other individuals who make a living in the beef value chain.

But there are some lingering misconceptions about beef. One is that raising beef is not sustainable. Yet cattle ranchers are making significant strides in sustainable production.

“Sustainability means responsibly and efficiently producing beef,” says Brad Bellah, a cattle rancher in Throckmorton, Texas. “That incudes managing resources for both today and tomorrow.”

Rotating the lands on which his cattle graze is one of the sustainable practices that Bellah follows on his ranch.

“This helps to utilize native grasses as efficiently as possible by intensively grazing one pasture for a short period of time then providing a long-term rest period,” says Bellah.

Like many beef ranchers, Bellah shares an intergenerational legacy. “My ultimate goal is to not only maintain but also improve and grow what my father and grandfather have built,” he says. “I’m constantly striving to do better.”

Bellah and his family are members of the real beef community that stands for good stewardship of natural resources, respect for the environment, safety and community involvement—a marked contrast to some portrayals that show beef producers as caring only about profits.

Contrary to the myth that beef raising somehow harms rural communities, the truth is that farmers, ranchers and their families have historically helped shape rural America. For example, almost half of cattlemen volunteer with youth organizations and more than one-third volunteer with other community organizations. On average, beef operations provide jobs for more than two family members as well as two non-family members. Cattlemen also support other farmers in many cases by buying crops for cattle feed from other farms within 100 miles.

Bellah sums it up this way:  “Essentially, I want to ensure that future generations of my family will be able to feed future generations of America.”

And the future promises high global demand for beef, the top-selling protein in foodservice. In 2050, 70 percent more food will be needed to feed the growing world population. Beef, as a nutrient dense, protein-rich food, is poised to be a major part of the solution.

Today, consumers have high expectations of environmental, ethical and social responsibility for the brands and commodities they use. In light of what the beef community is accomplishing in these areas, they can feel good about buying beef.

The beef industry improved its overall sustainability by 5 percent in just six years from 2005 to 2011, according to an assessment of beef industry sustainability by the Beef Checkoff. The smaller environmental footprint was the result of improvements in crop yields, machinery, technology, irrigation techniques, fertilizer management, nutrition and animal performance.

A sampling of specific areas of improvement shows a 32 percent reduction in occupational illnesses and accidents, as well as improvements in water and soil quality of 10 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

What’s more, a growing number of consumers consider efforts like these when they decide which restaurants to patronize or which menu items to have in the college dining hall.

“Consumers now expect that the foodservice venues they visit exhibit social consciousness and sustainability points, just like [they] are making the effort to do in their own lives,” said Wade Hanson, principal of the research firm Technomic Inc., in a statement announcing a recent Technomic study of sustainability and social responsibility that he directed.

College and university foodservice directors can reach out to students who share this consciousness by publicizing their own sustainability efforts and by telling the beef community’s improvement story as well. As the Technomic study noted, 63 percent of consumers say they are more likely to visit a foodservice operation they view as socially conscious.

And for ranchers, treating animals humanely is a critical aspect of responsible production. “Animal welfare is an integral part of what we focus on every day,” says Bellah. “As an animal caretaker, it’s second nature and a priority for me to make sure our cattle aren’t stressed or uncomfortable. We’re constantly looking to professionals for advice and best practices, including our veterinarian and cattle nutritionist as well as animal handling experts.”

Looking ahead, the beef community is committed to continuous sustainability improvements. Further strides are likely in wastewater recovery and biogas capture, packing alternatives, food waste reduction, optimizing nutrient application to soil and crop yields and water-efficient irrigation systems.

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