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Both producers and consumers of animal products have concern for the sustainability of production systems. The beef industry has defined sustainability as meeting the growing demand for beef by balancing environmental responsibility, economic opportunity, and social diligence. Measuring sustainability is challenging, as the beef supply chain is one of the most complex food systems in the world. In a proactive effort to identify opportunities to improve sustainability, the U.S. Beef Sustainability Research Program was launched in 2011. A methodology has been developed to characterize and evaluate beef production systems nationwide. A comprehensive life cycle assessment is to be conducted to quantify the sustainability of beef production throughout seven climatic regions of the United States. Within each region, representative beef production systems will be simulated using the Integrated Farm System Model to study their performance and environmental impacts. Information generated by these simulations will be used along with information gathered from the processing, marketing and consumer portions of the industry to define economic, social and environmental factors of sustainability using the BASF socio‐eco‐efficiency tool.
The objectives of the study were to determine cradle‐to‐farm gate environmental footprints of beef production systems in the Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas region. Specific objectives were to:
• Identify common production practices through a survey and visits of beef producers in the region.
• Develop and simulate representative ranches and feedyards using the climate, soil and management characteristics of the region to determine environmental impacts of cattle production.
• Integrate results found for the individual representative operations to determine environmental footprints for all beef cattle production in the region.
To characterize beef cattle production systems, information on production practices was gathered through surveys and site visits of ranches and feedyards in the region. Two surveys were developed and implemented through the internet. The first survey was for cow‐calf, stocker, and cow‐calf to finish ranches; the second surveyed feedyard operations. Participation was voluntary and encouraged by state beef council staff. Cattle on operations managed by survey respondents and the operations visited represented 0.8% of the cows maintained and 9% the finished cattle sold for slaughter in the region with a wide range in size and type of operations. To represent the range of operations found, 28 beef production systems were modeled using the Integrated Farm System Model (IFSM). These consisted of seven ranches in both Kansas and Oklahoma and eight in Texas. Three feedyards were modeled in Kansas with one in Oklahoma and two in Texas. Each state was divided into eastern, central and western areas primarily because of the large decrease in precipitation found moving from east to west. The representative ranches and feedyards were distributed across these areas to assure representation of climatic, edaphic and management differences. Along with the traditional beef production systems, systems including Holstein steers and cull cows from the dairy industry in the region were also modeled and included. A weighted average of the production systems was used to determine the environmental footprints for the region where weighting factors were developed based upon animal numbers reported in survey and agricultural statistics data.
Survey results showed that most characteristics of cow calf and stocker ranches and feedyards did not vary much across states, but stocking rates, fertilizer use, and forage conservation decreased, and feedyard size increased moving from the wetter eastern side of the region to the dry, semi‐arid conditions of the western side. The carbon footprint of all beef produced in the region was 18.3 ± 1.7 kg CO2 equivalents (CO2e)/kg carcass weight (CW) with the range in individual production systems being 13 to 25 kg CO2e/kg CW. Energy use, water use, and reactive nitrogen loss were 51 ± 4.8 MJ/kg CW, 2470 ± 455 liters/kg CW and 138 ± 12 g N/kg CW, respectively. The major portion of each footprint, except water use, was associated with the cow‐calf phase; most of the water use was attributed to producing feed for the finishing phase.
The cattle production results will be combined with processing, marketing and consumer data to complete a comprehensive life cycle assessment of the production and consumption of beef from the region. This work furthers our understanding of the impact of beef cattle production on our environment. Because this region maintains 25% of the beef cows and finishes 37% of the beef cattle produced in the United States, this regional analysis gives us a good indication of the national environmental footprints of beef production. To better represent the whole of U.S. beef production, further analysis is needed covering all regions and the important production practices across the country. Scientific documentation of the environmental impacts of beef production helps support the industry from false and poorly defined information in the media. Determining the real environmental impacts will also lead to the development and implementation of more sustainable production practices. Adoption of sustainable management practices along the production chain benefits the beef industry by protecting the environmental resources on which it relies and enhancing consumer confidence to maintain production and profitability.