Conventionally produced beef…safe and sustainable?

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We are all bombarded with the propaganda that conventionally raised beef is not healthy or sustainable by media, society, and even some of our fellow producers. Organic, all-natural, and grass-fed beef is lauded as the only environmentally sustainable way to produce beef. While these are great marketing tools for niche markets, they do not fit two of the cornerstones of sustainability…namely economically feasible for consumers to purchase and capability to produce adequately to meet demand. Current technology enables the beef industry to produce 131% more beef than in 1977 with 70% fewer animals, utilizing less water and feed while producing less methane and carbon dioxide. If production was shifted back to a grass finishing industry like America in the 1880’s or countries like Australia or Argentina are known for (which incidentally are developing their own grain finishing capabilities), Jude Capper, noted sustainability consultant, estimates it would require 64 million more head of grass fed cattle than are currently needed in conventionally produced cattle. This would require millions more acres of pasture and much greater resource use (fuel, water, and fertilizer) to provide equivalent beef production to the consumers.

There are multiple tools that beef producers use to provide efficient economically sustainable protein to consumers. Growth promoting hormones and ionophores (compounds like Rumensin, Bovatec, or Gainpro) increase the rate of growth and feed efficiency of cattle. These are compounds that not only are available to the feedlot sector but can be used by Arkansas cow-calf and stocker producers as well. Research at the University of Arkansas Livestock and Forestry Research Station proves that growing steers implanted with growth promotants and supplemented with ionophores gained 40 pounds more than steers that did not receive these technologies, leading to increased beef production and improved economic sustainability. Ionophores are antimicrobial compounds that inhibit the growth of rumen microbes that disrupt ruminal fermentation; thus they help capture more feed energy. Implants increase muscle mass and decrease fat which is more energetically efficient for growing calves. These compounds are proven safe in production of our food supply. A common misconception about our beef supply is the estrogen content of beef from implanted beef cattle. Where a 3 ounce serving of beef from an implanted contains about 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, common foods like peas or soybean products contain 10 times that amount and cabbage contains 100 times that amount per serving. As far as these levels of hormone affecting development of our youth, a pre-pubertal boy produces over 41,000 nanograms of estrogen per day and a pre-pubertal girl over 54,000 nanograms.

Great strides have been made in the efficiency of beef production over the last 30 years, retaining beef’s status as a safe, affordable, and preferred staple in our larders. Most of the increase in efficiency has come from the stocker and finishing segments of our industry, but between 60 and 80% of the carbon footprint of beef production is in the cow-calf sector. Thus, the cow-calf sector is where future improvements in efficiency need to be made. In many instances, simple improvements in the husbandry practices we have in place at the local level can boost the efficiency of the entire beef production chain.

In closing, the beef industry can continue to provide a safe, affordable, and plentiful (and thus sustainable) product to consumers, as long as we have available the tools to do it. If we begin limiting technology for beef production (such as beta agonists or lean finely textured beef) then our ability to meet consumer demand will be limited as well.

Source: Dr. Paul Beck

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