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The beef industry has taken the charge to evaluate “sustainability” of the business, indicating there are economic, environmental, and social aspects to the term.  For most, it is intuitive that ranchers who have been raising cattle for decades are “sustainable” because, after all, they have successfully maintained profitability, preserved and improved their natural resource base in order to maintain a cowherd, and live a fulfilling (but challenging) lifestyle.  In my mind, beef production has a beautiful story to tell about the sustainability of the industry, especially when one considers the nature of the beef animal, and the very important advancements that have been made in the way that the system operates.

stockersBeef cattle (ruminants) are a truly fascinating and sustainable species because of their ability to support a fetus, and produce milk and meat from nutrients that neither man, nor other livestock species can use.  Grasses and forages that predominate the world’s landscape are comprised of structural carbohydrates, cellulose and hemicellulose.  Ruminants have a fermentation vat containing millions of microorganisms that produce protein and energy for the animal from these nutrients.  The downside of the fermentation process, which is inherent to beef production, is a reduction in efficiency of nutrient utilization for producing beef compared with other protein sources.

However, to overcome the inherent inefficiency of the beef animal, the industry has worked diligently over the past 50 years to better understand the beef production system and has developed safe interventions and management practices to augment efficiency of nutrient utilization, thus making the system more “sustainable.”  The industry has evolved with better genetics, a more thorough understanding of nutrient requirements for the beef animal, more precise feed formulations, and improvements in feed processing and handling.  In addition to these management advancements, growth promoting technologies are responsible for largely improving efficiency and sustainability of the entire beef system.  These tools both enhance nutrient utilization in order to increase the amount of product that the animal produces, and decrease resource utilization, and waste.  When technology is applied in the beef production system, there is less water and land required to produce crops; less manure is produced, and less nitrogen and phosphorus are excreted (Capper, 2011; Capper et al., 2012).  As a result of improved nutrient utilization, less animals are required to produce a similar amount of beef, thus reducing the overall carbon footprint of the system (Capper, 2011).  Additionally, applying these technologies reduces production costs, in turn decreasing consumer beef prices.

The industry has evolved with better genetics, a more thorough understanding of nutrient requirements for the beef animal, more precise feed formulations, and improvements in feed processing and handling

Growth promoting technologies most commonly applied in a “conventional” beef production system include growth promoting implants, ionophores, and beta-adrenergic agonists.  Each of these compounds work in different ways to help the animal better use nutrients.  Of the technologies developed to date, growth promoting implants yield the greatest return on investment, with the most consistent response.  In-depth research with growth promoting technologies ensures the safety of these products for the animal as well as for human consumption.  When used properly, growth promoting technologies allow the beef animal to better utilize nutrients from feedstuffs for protein deposition, without altering meat quality or food safety.

While growth promoting technologies fulfill environmental and economic pillars of sustainability, the social acceptance of these products is challenged by the uninformed consumer.  Science driven responses do not seem to appease the general public today, with much of the social concern for conventional beef production, particularly in the US, driven by an abundant and extremely affordable and safe food supply.  Consumers believe that natural and organic products are better for their family, and better for the environment, whereas science proves differently.  While these systems do fulfill a niche in the industry, protein demands of a growing population cannot be met within these systems.  There is not a straightforward conclusion to this issue. It is important, however, for agriculture producers to make a conscious effort to open the dialog with non-agriculture audiences, in order to conserve the sustainability of our industry.

Capper, J. L.  2011. The environmental impact of beef production in the United States:  1977 compared with 2007. J. Anim. Sci.  89:4249-4261.

Capper, J. L., and D. J. Hayes.  2012.  The environmental and economic impact of removing growth-enhancing technologies from U.S. beef production. J. Anim. Sci.  90:3527-3537.