Ruminants have role in a sustainable food system 

By Rae Price, WLJ editor

Jun 29, 2018 Updated Jun 29, 2018

“Our product [beef] helps make their product sustainable,” was one of the messages presented by Sara Place, Ph.D., in a discussion during the Beef Improvement Federation’s 50th Annual Convention in Loveland, CO, June 20-23.

Place, who serves as the senior director of sustainable beef production research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, addressed attendees during the opening general session on June 21. Her presentation noted that while plant-based proteins promote their sustainability, the production of those products results in byproducts that can’t be eaten by humans, and instead of going to waste are fed to livestock to produce valuable protein for humans.

Place said plant-based meats imply that more plant-based food is better for the environment, which she argues is not true. “It seems like every day we have a study come out saying that beef is terrible for the planet,” Place added. “One article in the Science Journal, a very reputable publication, said that eating less red meat would leave us better off. There are a lot of statistics being thrown out there, but we have to remember, there are lies, damn lies and statistics.”

She discussed the amount of animal protein consumed in the U.S. and globally and the question of “Does ‘less meat’ really mean ‘less heat’?” “Emissions go down—not because people are eating less—but because of increased sustainability,” Place said. “American beef should not be the focus to reduce emissions.” She explained that, when looking at emissions from cattle, the United States is on the low end compared to other countries.

Place pointed out multiple factors that are important to a sustainable food system but are not captured in environmental footprints. The points touched on in her presentation and in the accompanying proceedings paper include:

• Cattle can convert human-inedible feedstuffs into high quality human-edible protein.

• Cattle consume forages/roughages that are grown on lands unsuitable for cultivation, thereby expanding the land base available for food production.

• Cattle consume byproduct feeds from the food, fiber, and biofuels industries.

• Integrating cattle into row-crop plant agriculture systems can have environmental and socioeconomic sustainability benefits.

• Beef cattle operations represent over one third of the farms in the United States, and thus beef cattle producers play an important role in the agricultural economy and the social fabric of rural America.

• Cattle produce more than edible beef—they are also a source of a variety of ancillary products from leather to pharmaceuticals.

Place presented evidence that when comparing monogastric animals such as pigs and chickens with ruminants, cattle are more efficient in converting feedstuffs not edible by humans into protein that humans can eat. She noted that an average U.S. grain-finished beef animal will consume 13.8 pounds of feed per pound of product, live weight. It will also consume 1.6 pounds of human-edible feed (e.g., corn, soy) per pound of live weight. The feeding regimen will result in 2.53 pounds of net protein contribution. A value greater than one means more high protein is generated than used.

By contrast, a broiler chicken will consume 1.6 pounds of feed per pound of product, live weight, 1.4 pounds of human-edible food, and produce 0.85 pounds of net protein. Pork production shows 2.5 pounds of feed consumed per pound of product, live weight, 2.0 pounds of human-edible food, resulting in 0.70 pounds of net protein contribution.

Efficiency in productivity is seen as a key driver in improving sustainability, and U.S. beef producers appear to be taking steps in the right direction. An example used was population levels of humans and cow herds based on USDA, Economic Research Service and U.S. Census Bureau data. In 1976 the U.S. population was 218 million with a cattle inventory of 128 million, and consumers averaging 3.0 ounces of beef consumption per day. In 2017 the population was 326 million with a cattle inventory of 94 million, meeting the needs of consumers eating an average1.8 ounces of beef per day.

Comparing 1976 productivity to 2017, if methods had not improved it would require a cattle inventory of 129 million to feed 326 million people eating an average of 1.8 ounces of beef per day.

And although beef consumption is about the same today as it was in 1909, after a high in the mid-1970s, consumption of chicken has gone up 500 percent in the same time. Place said this should be of some concern to beef producers. She noted, however, that although beef consumption is declining, demand is not.
While progress has been made in increasing the sustainability of the beef industry, opportunities remain to do better. Among those are an increased focus on feed-to-gain ratios. The presentation material noted, “We’re likely nowhere close to the biological efficiency potential of cattle.”

As a final thought, Place left attendees with this message: “The beef community uses a technology that produces high-quality protein from solar energy locked within human-inedible plants. That technology produces a natural organic fertilizer and is mobile without using fossil fuels. The technology self-replicates. The technology is … cattle. Beef is the original meat.”

And while livestock producers know many of these facts presented, Place challenged convention attendees to tell their personal story of sustainable agriculture efforts.

Rae Price, WLJ editor