On March 14, Drovers/CattleNetwork hosted a Beef Sustainability webinar, providing scientific insights on modern beef production and its environmental impacts. The webinar, sponsored by Merck Animal Health, featured Washington State University animal scientist Jude Capper, PhD, and University of California-Davis atmospheric scientist Frank Mitloehner, PhD.
The two scientists provided strong scientific evidence to refute some of the commonly quoted misinformation regarding greenhouse gas emissions and other aspects of beef’s “environmental footprint,” while demonstrating how improvements in efficiency and productivity contribute to the long-term sustainability of modern beef production.
The webinar is available for viewing from Drovers/CattleNework.
Webinar participants had an opportunity to ask questions, but the presenters did not have time to address all of them during the session, so we provide some of those questions and answers here.
Question: How sustainable are feedlots within the beef production system?
Answer from Dr. Jude Capper: Evidence suggests that feedlots have the lowest carbon emissions, land use and water use per unit of beef compared to grass-finished production systems as a consequence of the faster growth rates and increased slaughter weights in the feedlot system. In terms of economic viability, production costs tend to be lower in the feedlot system and therefore savings are passed on to the consumer. The social responsibility aspect is more nebulous and I don't know of any published research on the subject, however, evidence suggests that the majority of consumers primarily choose products according to taste, price and nutrition, with only a small percentage (about 4 percent) choosing foods according to production system such as organic, natural or local.
Question: What if we were to educate consumers to use what I will call "red veal" calves coming off grass and mothers milk, which would reduce resourced use?
Answer from Dr. Jude Capper: You're right, "red veal" would potentially have a lower resource use, however I don't know of any studies that have specifically examined this at present. In addition to the improvements in growth rate and slaughter weight that reduced the environmental impact of the US beef industry between 1977 and 2007, the use of dairy calves for beef production in 2007 (vs. veal production in 1977) helped to reduce resource use and carbon emissions per unit of beef as we needed to maintain fewer beef cows in the cow-calf operations to support beef supply. Having said that, the relatively small consumer demand for veal nowadays may mean that it remains a relatively small component of overall animal protein supply.