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Beef sustainability: Tell your story

Ask 10 beef producers about their ranch’s sustainability for the long haul, and at least nine of them will say, “It’s about making a profit. Without that, well, what else counts?”

Florida cattleman Marty Smith won’t argue the point. “No other parts of sustainability matter if we can’t make a profit,” he says. 

But he also knows the profit statement alone won’t necessarily carry the conversation with those outside of agriculture, especially environmental activists. “We have to show people that we are not causing environmental problems, but we are actually the solution,” he says.
 
Smith is the immediate past-president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). No sooner did his term end last year than he jumped full bore into another assignment: Chairperson of a new Sustainability Task Force. Smith made it clear in several Zoom meetings with the 16 other beef producers that every voice would be heard, including the sustainable-only-means-profitable voice.

They shared their initial report at the Cattle Industry Convention and laid out three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. The first goal is to demonstrate climate neutrality of the cattle industry by the year 2040. “Frankly,” says Smith, “we’re already there, and what we do in agriculture is already putting carbon back into the soil. We will demonstrate that to everyone through research.”

Smith thinks his own farm, Smith Brothers-Wacahoota Ranch, has a unique place in the discussion. It’s a five-generation cow/calf ranch, but the history of cattle on that land goes back much farther - 500 years, in fact! 

“The first cattle ever brought to North America came with Ponce de Leon, the first European to explore what is now Florida, in 1521,” says Smith. “We have sustained ranching here for 500 years.” 

He likes to show visitors the timber that his family maintains there, much as it was 500 years ago, along with the native wildlife. “We have to deal with 60 inches of rainfall here every year, sometimes much more, and help maintain clean water for the 20 million people who live in this state and area,” he tells them.

Farmers and ranchers may give you the disgusted eye roll when the sustainability issue comes up. While Smith knows the feeling, he also believes beef producers have to address the misinformation, particularly from the activists who don’t necessarily dig for the truth.

He points to a United Nations report from a few years ago, called Livestock’s Long Shadow, that said cattle account for 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. “The methodology they used was all wrong, and we pointed it out,” Smith says. While the U.N. later modified the livestock impact downward, perceptions die hard, and the original report still surfaces.

Now, Smith adds, our own EPA calculates that U.S. cattle account for just 2% of greenhouse gases at most.

“We have to show the positive side of our business,” says Smith. “This is a sustainable product we have. NCBA wants to be the trusted leader of the U.S. cattle industry, and we have to step out and tell that story.

“It’s a big deal for me, as I try to sustain this ranch for another generation or two.” 

What Can You Do?

Continue what you are doing by improving the efficiency of beef production on your own land.

Jessica Gilreath, environmental researcher at Texas A&M University, did a study to evaluate practices cow/calf producers could use to reduce their environmental footprint. The top five things are: improve feed efficiency; utilize terminal crossing systems; reduce mature cow size; get higher calf weights; wean calves earlier. The first three are the top strategies, she says.

They also happen to line up perfectly with what you probably do anyway to improve your own bottom line. They increase the pounds of beef produced on the same or lower inputs. It’s especially important on cow/calf farms, Gilreath says, because that’s the segment of the cattle industry that accounts for about 70% of methane (a greenhouse gas) emissions.

“If every producer did them all, the cattle industry would reduce its environmental footprint by 16%,” she says.

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