Is Beef Cattle Production Good for the Environment?

Students (all seniors) enrolled in AGRI 610 Beef Cattle Production and Management this past spring semester were asked to choose a topic about beef production and write a short article to share with the public about that topic.  The topics could cover anything from a description of their own ranch operations to a specific aspect of beef, such as its nutritional value. These articles are also being shared with each student’s local hometown newspaper.

By Miranda Skubal

Have you ever been near a cow when she burps? And yes, it is possible for a cow to burp, and it’s quite smelly. When a cow burps she is releasing methane gas from her digestive system, but it’s not as much methane released as environmentalists would have you believe. It is very common for the media to portray reduced beef consumption and production as, in the long run, better for the carbon footprint in the world. I am here to try and shed light on the other side of the story, the rancher’s side.

First, let’s talk about the cow and how its bodily functions. Cattle are sometimes thought of as nature’s recyclers, because of their unique, four-chambered digestive system, known as the rumen, which can utilize products that are undesirable or indigestible for people. The microorganisms in the rumen helps digest nutrients needed from fruits, vegetables, grasses and other feedstuffs that humans don’t consume or can’t digest, says the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. What we think of as leftovers, such as carrot tops or almond hulls, can be mixed into their feed with grasses and grains, like alfalfa, corn, and native grass to be converted to high-quality beef.

In the past, cattle producers were not as efficient in how they raised cattle. “But today, the farmers and cattle ranchers are much more efficient in how cattle are raised,” says the California Cattlemen’s Association.

“In the past 30 years,” the California Association continues, “ranchers are able to raise 31 percent more beef with 30 percent less cattle in production. Also, when compared with production in 1977, each pound of beef produced today produces 16 percent less carbon emissions, uses 33 percent less land, and requires 12 percent less water.”

Cattle production does not have a big impact on air quality. Information from the California Cattlemen’s Association further says “beef production accounts for only 2.8 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 26 percent for transportation.”

Beef producers also want to care for their land, because we only have a limited amount and it keeps shrinking every day, month, and year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 85 percent of the land is not suitable for agricultural crops. Grazing animals help ranchers double the land area that can be used to produce goods. Environmental awards given by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association recognizes farmers and ranchers for their stewardship practices and natural resource conservation efforts for the range and wildlife. Range management professionals can help ranchers improve their environmental footprint through such tools ar grazing management plans.

Water conservation has been a hot topic for many environmentalists for the past several years due to drought in most Midwest states. Cattle drink a lot of water, but they are actually just a part of the water cycle. On average it takes 617 gallons of water to produce one pound of boneless beef, according to a recent beef industry sustainability lifecycle assessment funded by the Beef Checkoff. This study also found the beef producer community achieved a 3-percent reduction in water usage and a 10-percent improvement in the water quality. However, keep in mind that water for raising beef is not “used up.” The water cycle we all studied in grade school is still working. Water flows into aquifers, runs down streams then into lakes and oceans and then evaporates and returns as rain and other forms of precipitation. Cattle pastures provide land to filter the water to return it to the ecosystem.

Although many people want you to believe that cattle production will kill the environment, it really won’t. Producers work hard every day, month, year and decade to improve facilities and practices. While environmentalists want to portray cattle producers as uncaring about the environment, they do not realize that taking care of the environment is a major player in our profitability and our passion. We care about the world around us.

Miranda Skubal, a 2015 home school graduate, is a senior majoring in animal science at Fort Hays State University. She is the daughter of Ed and Terri Hayes, Geneseo.

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