By Patrick Bray, Executive Director for the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association and Lauren Scheller, Director of Consumer Marketing and Public Relations for the Arizona Beef Council
The desert sunset featuring a cowboy atop his horse is one that every American loves. It has been used to sell everything from cigarettes to real estate. Some of the tools of the trade have not changed much either, like the horse, rope and hot iron brand. While the city folk romanticize about being on horseback pushing that big herd underneath the western sky, that cowboy in the image is busy trying to stay competitive in an ever-changing market. Gone are the simple days of driving large herds of cattle to market, collecting a check and calling it a day. Great change has taken place over the years toward not only becoming more than sustainable but also to remain resilient in markets which move in gigabytes.
It is no secret that the cow herd and calf crops are at all-time lows and although we have seen this at other points in history, the market in which we compete today is highly sophisticated compared to the old horse and rope. Today, ranchers can watch and purchase from live cattle sales half way across the country, all while reclining in the comfort of an easy chair and have them delivered in a matter of days. Stop to think about that: just a decade ago that was not at all possible. So the question remains, how do we incorporate technology into a business that still heavily relies on a cowboy and rope? How do we harness the technology the average person is using to better our business? These are real issues that we have to consider if we are going to be a competitive ranching operation and compete in a global market.
In any cow-calf operation in the United States you need three major elements: sunlight, soil and water. If you talk to any rancher they will also tell you that you need a generous banker. But those three items are the base of our industry to produce feed to yield cattle. So now that we have established the base, how do we take care of it to ensure the future? We simply monitor and keep records. If you ask some of the more experienced cattlemen in the state they can tell you about the floods in the 1980s and about the “real monsoons.” But times are changing and so are we.
Technology Advances are Just an App Away
Today your average rancher is intimately involved with monitoring the range to ensure their livelihood, because it is necessary and part of being a good steward. In fact, in the last few months we have heard ranchers discussing new apps on smart phones that take a picture, record date, time, GPS coordinates and even elevation.
While cattle prices are the scuttlebutt of any cattlemen gathering, more and more the techniques of monitoring changes in the landscape and stewardship dominate the conversations. The industry in the west has focused years on developing new and sound monitoring practices. Just last year, the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association completed a monitoring handbook that cattlemen and government agencies agreed to use for the collection of data. At the same time, the University of Arizona Extension has been working with a program called “Reading the Range” for a few years collecting data to monitor trends and to assist producers to make critical decisions in their grazing rotations. From here forward that range management game will be driven by data. It will be critical to collect, analyze and then produce favorable outcomes for the land and your business. No longer will it be just family records and things remembered from a long ago that will drive decisions. It will be the whole world watching you as stewards of the western landscape.
The information game is true on the livestock side as well. Remember when national livestock shows were the premier places for producers to view breeding stock and even acquire genetics? Those days have passed. Today producers are constantly analyzing data to make herd choices, everything from EPD’s to weight gain on calves and slaughter data. In addition, those that are reaching top market prices have implemented critical vaccine programs and have a way of age and source verifying along with passing information down the line to feedlots and packing houses. The cattle industry in Arizona is sustainable; the challenge will be to stay resilient to meet the demands of the American consumer.
Beef Industry Proves its Sustainability
Often times, the beef community is unfairly blamed for some of the lamentations of society and detrimental impacts to the environment are claimed at the top of the list. Some headlines have gone so far as to say, “Cow Farts Cause Global Warming.” Sounds like the opening to the latest Baxter Black commentary but it really has appeared in national publications.
The beef community has always known it is one of the most sustainable industries and now the data exists to prove it. That is not to say there is no room for improvement, one can always improve, but now ranch and industry-wide decisions can have a baseline from which to measure improvement going forward based on the beef checkoff-funded Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment.
Certified by the National Standards Foundation (NSF), the Beef Industry Sustainability Assessment is the first-of-its-kind life cycle assessment (LCA). The work, led by Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Ph.D., National Cattlemen’s Beef Association director of sustainability, provides benchmarks on economic, environmental and social contributions in the United States. The assessment proves that the beef community has improved its sustainability over time and identifies areas along the supply chain where future research and improvements may be needed.
“The completion of this project provides the industry, for the first time, the science-based evidence necessary to lead conversations about the sustainability of beef,” said Stackhouse-Lawson. Started three years ago, the beef sustainability assessment is the most detailed examination of a commodity value chain ever completed. The results of the sustainability assessment tell a very positive story for the beef industry. In just the past six years the beef industry has achieved 7 percent reduction in its environmental fingerprint.
The study examined three separate time periods and took into account data from a number of sources representing the full value chain. All the inputs and outputs required to produce a pound of boneless, edible beef were examined for the 1970s, 2005 and 2011, each time period representing major shifts in beef production practices. “The 1970s was chosen because that’s when we transitioned to boxed beef. We selected 2005, when we started feeding significant volumes of distiller’s grains and the 2011 calculations represent present day,” shared Stackhouse-Lawson. “We went back and examined data from each of those years from pre- and post-harvest sectors and then created complex models to simulate the data and calculate indices that measure industry sustainability.”
This work is being widely accepted and is positioning the beef industry to tell a proactive and positive story about improvement over time. As a result of conducting this ground breaking work, we are able to find more common ground with skeptics and work toward constructive solutions that have not been possible in the past. In addition, the beef community, across the entire production chain, has come together around this work and is working cooperatively toward solutions for a more sustainable future.
“The results of this work show the beef community is becoming more innovative and efficient, while also doing an excellent job protecting the resources with which they have been entrusted,” shares Norm Hinz, cattle feeder and chairman of the Arizona Beef Council.
For more information and research results, visit BeefResearch.org.
Many beef farmers and ranchers look at sustainability as the ability to pass a ranch or business from one generation to the next, but it is more than just that piece. It also encompasses beef’s contributions to the economic landscape, the environment and towns where the beef industry is an integral part of the social fabric of the community. Ranchers contribute to the tax base, the industry creates jobs and provides a number of additional social benefits that the sustainability assessment quantified for the first time. The results show that in many of these areas the industry has made significant improvements over time. The research group also identified areas where there are still opportunities for improvement.
“There are pieces of the production puzzle that we just can’t do much about. Methane and ammonia emissions from our mama cows are an area where we can’t make much improvement and we recognize that. But there are other areas, like energy and water consumption, where we might be able to make improvements and those are really the areas where we want to target our efforts to help make the industry more sustainable in the future,” Stackhouse-Lawson said.
When talking about sustainability, it is all about getting better over time. As beef producers, we are doing a good job at making progress on the path toward a more sustainable future. The certification of these results is confirmation, and that is something to make Arizona beef farmers and ranchers proud. So whether it is a consumer enjoying a steak or a cowboy with a loop on a calf, everything we do to produce beef is taking fewer resources – except for money!