Beef cattle have a reputation as being bad for the environment. However, the story is much more complex and interesting than you might think. Raising beef makes positive contributions to the environment in ways that many people don’t realize. We asked Dr. Christian Artuso of the Migratory Bird Conservation Unit of the Canadian Wildlife Service – can beef cattle be good for the environment?
Grasslands: An endangered ecosystem
Grasslands, which play an important role in beef production, are some of the most threatened ecosystems on earth. Native grasslands are home to incredibly diverse plant and animal life, as well as more than 60 Canadian species at risk. They play a critical role in the water cycle, contributing to ground water reserves, rivers and streams, holding water during floods and providing clean drinking water for human and wildlife communities. Stable grassland ecosystems help protect and improve surface water quality by filtering the water that goes into surrounding water bodies and preventing soil erosion.
These unique ecosystems are also very important in fighting climate change.
Through photosynthesis, grassland plants remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their root systems through what is called carbon sequestration. This process reduces carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by turning the soil into a “carbon sink.” Since carbon is an essential plant nutrient, it can be used by plants to support growth.
In essence, Canadian grasslands act like large carbon storage tanks. Research show that grasslands hold about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon – equivalent to the emissions released by 3.62 million cars annually – that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.
Grasslands need grazers
Without grassland management – and grazing animals like cattle – these fragile ecosystems are at risk.
Long before cattle were introduced to the prairies, millions of bison roamed the grasslands. These animals helped keep grasslands healthy by aerating the ground with their hooves, producing manure and urine that supplied important nutrients to plants, and spreading seeds as they moved over the landscape. Today, bison have largely been replaced by cattle herds that fulfill a similar role.
Grazing cattle foster plant diversity by eating the dominant grasses, allowing other species to thrive and grow. Their feeding and movement through grasslands removes dry grasses that pose a fire risk and prevents overgrowth, which can result in habitat loss for many bird species.
Cattle play a critical role in the cycling of nutrients and water in a grassland ecosystem. Most of the water and nutrients consumed by cattle will eventually cycle back through the system to be used again.
Reducing waste and raising beef more efficiently
Cattle are amazing recyclers. In the winter, they eat many of the by-products of food and industrial processing that don’t make the cut for human consumption. These include distillers’ grains left over from brewing and ethanol production, canola and soybean meal, cereal grains left over from flour production, misshapen carrots or beet pulp or even culled french fries. They can also eat grains damaged by insects, disease, frost or drought.
Of the total cropland in Canada, less than 9% is used to grow feed for cattle. Much of the land cattle graze is part of a delicate ecosystem with low quality soil or is too rocky to produce quality crops.
Farmers and ranchers are continually balancing how to use agriculture resources (like land) more efficiently and prevent waste. Comparing beef production in 2011 to 1981, Canadian ranchers produced 32% more beef with 17% less water, 24% less land and 15% fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Now that’s progress!
One of the ways farmers do this is through intensive livestock operations that focus on raising and feeding many animals in a smaller space, like a feedlot system. After spending most of their lives in the pasture, beef cattle generally go to a feedlot where they spend three to five months and are fed a high-energy diet then are sold for meat. This method of raising cattle greatly increase the efficiency of beef production, which also means lower costs for both farmers and consumers.
Growth promotants are another tool that feedlots and farmers can use to raise beef more efficiently. Examples include ionophores, which are added to feed so that cattle use nutrients more effectively and with less waste, resulting in the animals maturing more quickly. Hormones, another example, help cattle grow more protein and less fat, which improves both weight gain and the ability to convert feed to muscle.
Making beef production sustainable for the future
Grazing cattle play an important role in keeping grasslands healthy both now and in the decades ahead. Farmers and ranchers want to ensure that these vital ecosystems are maintained for future generations. This responsibility comes with the need to continually improve how crops are grown and how livestock are raised. All of this involves being responsive to environmental issues and concerns.