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ILC looks at beef production and environment

By Larry Dreiling


EFFICENCY AND ENVIRONMENT—Jude Capper, Ph.D., assistant professor of dairy sciences at Washington State University, speaks to the recent International Livestock Congress at Denver. Capper discussed her research into building efficiencies with environmental stewardship into the beef production system. (Journal photo by Larry Dreiling.)

Sex sells.

That's why the hard-core environmental movement is out to end beef production.

"When you have anti-animal people like Pam Anderson touting her message, it's sexy. And sex sells," said Jude Capper, Ph.D., assistant professor of dairy science at Washington State University.

Capper was the keynote speaker at the annual International Livestock Congress, held recently at Denver as part of the National Western Stock Show.

Capper presented her research showing that consumers often perceive that the modern beef production system has an environmental impact far greater than that of historical systems, with improved efficiency being achieved at the expense of greenhouse gas emissions.

Capper said books like "The Omnivore's Dilemma" are "twisted truth" that make her want to "want to reach for something strong to drink because it will raise your blood pressure." This is because the authors have no idea of what it will take to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050. This will require 70 percent more food than is produced now, since the population's income will improve as well.

"PETA will often say that every pound of meat takes 2,453 gallons of water to produce," Capper said. "Numbers have power, even if those numbers aren't true."

"By the way, could you imagine the smell of this room by four o'clock if we were all on a plant-based diet? Guess what, we emit greenhouse gases, too."

Capper said she was proud of the way organizations ranging from universities, animal health companies and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association have done in discussing research and environmental stewardship.

"The problem is, their numbers are always challenged, where the numbers from Pam Anderson aren't."

Capper presented details of a 2007 study she did to compare the environmental impact of modern U.S. beef production with production practices characteristic of the U.S. beef system in 1977.

The study covered all levels of the industry: Cows and heifers, steers and bulls. It covered feed, land, water (use and irrigation), fertilizer, fuel, and many capital expenses.

In her study, modern beef production requires considerably fewer resources than the equivalent system in 1977, with 69.9 percent of animals, 81.4 percent of feedstuffs, 87.9 percent of the water, and only 67 percent of the land required to produce 1 billion kilograms of beef.

Waste outputs were similarly reduced, with modern beef systems producing 81.9 percent of the manure, 82.3 percent of the methane, and 88.0 percent of the nitrous oxide per billion kilograms of beef compared with production systems in 1977. The carbon footprint per billion kilograms of beef produced in 2007 was reduced by 16.3 percent compared with equivalent beef production in 1977.

What once took five animals in 1977 now takes just four to produce the same amount of beef, Capper said. Reducing the environmental impact is key to efficient production.

"As the population increases, it is crucial to continue the improvements in efficiency demonstrated over the past 30 years to supply the market demand for safe, affordable beef while reducing resource use and mitigating environmental impact," Capper said.

That doesn't mean to say that there isn't a place for niche marketing programs, such as grass-fed beef.

"I'm not against grass-fed," Capper said. "There is a place for everything in the beef industry and everything in its place. What I am against is marketing these products with claims that are not true, such as the claims Michael Pollan makes in his book.

"Those kinds of things are picked up in The New York Times, and 98 percent of Times readers don't understand production agriculture. For example, they have no understanding of the use of hormone implants. They just read the term and have a negative reaction."

Capper then proceeded to break down in fundamental terms what the environmental costs are in conventional, natural and grass-fed beef production.

Her study indicated that to achieve an 800-pound carcass, conventiona; production takes 453 days from birth to slaughter. In natural production, a 714-pound carcass would take 464 days, requiring an additional 14.4 million head of cattle to meet current demand. A grass-fed animal, weighing 615 pounds, would need 679 days to finish and require an additional 64.6 million head to meet demand.

A move to a grass-fed system would require an additional 131 million acres of land, produce an added 13.4 million tons of carbon dioxide and require an additional 468 million gallons of water.

"That would be the equivalent land use to 75 percent of Texas, an additional CO2 dose of 26.6 million cars on the road and the water consumption of 53 million U.S. households," Capper said. "That's 25 percent more households--it's absolutely huge."

Even for all the gains in efficiency and for the success current efficiencies have against other production systems, Capper said there is a need to producers to further increase efficiencies, particularly in the use of water.

"Water consumption to support food production will be a major issue. It's played into by the anti-animal ag groups," Capper said. "The implication is meat uses water."

She told of a group called the Water Footprint Network, which has published information in popular magazines such as National Geographic stating it takes 36 months to produce a beef animal.

"These numbers are just insane, but carry on," said the English-born Capper.

"If you mine the data, they say steers grow at an average of 0.80 pounds a day. The normal average is 2.95 pounds per day. If you do raise them that way, talk to someone, please. I think you may have a problem with your operation."

Capper suggested several different ways to increase efficiencies, including:

--Continue to reduce time to finishing weight;

--Increase growth rates;

--Reduce mortality and morbidity;

--Aim for a calf a year;

--Improve pastures; and

--Reduce post-harvest waste, such as improving transportation efficiency.

"Just remember, every system has a niche in this society," Capper said. "We must dedicate ourselves to reducing the carbon footprint in order to maintain the social license we have with the consumer."

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at ldreiling@aol.com.



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