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Sustainably Producing Beef That Consumers Feel Good About
Healthy cows start with healthy land. That’s the philosophy of G Bar C Ranch, where Angus-based cattle crossed with Charolais bulls are nourished by crystal-clear streams and native grasses. The same diverse ecosystem that feeds the herd on the land also nurtures an underground herd of microbes in the soil.
“Our ranch is like a natural park that has cows on it,” says Meredith Ellis, who runs the ranch with her parents, G.C. and Mary Ellis, along with their employee of nearly 30 years, Mike Knabe. “The monarch butterflies stop here on their migration. We have federally endangered orchids growing on our property.”
Because it would be very difficult to re-create this flourishing environment, Ellis knows it’s their job to preserve it. As consumers continue to question the origin of their food and how it is produced, the second-generation rancher also knows they have a responsibility to share the ranch’s story of how it creates a sustainable product.
A Healthy Ecosystem
Located in a small farming and ranching community in north-central Texas, G Bar C Ranch began over 30 years ago with the purchase of 350 acres. Through the years, more acres and animals were added, as were a rotational grazing system to better manage native grasses and diversity, water filtration, and nutrition levels. Today, the operation has grown to almost 3,000 acres and includes 43 pastures that support 180 head of cattle.
It’s estimated that the impact of how those animals are raised, including the production of feed, is 3.3% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Enhancing carbon sequestration – the long-term capture and storage of carbon from the atmosphere, typically as carbon dioxide – through well-managed cattle-grazing practices and improved feed production can reduce that footprint. At the same time, it addresses consumers’ environmental concerns associated with beef production.
“About 92% of the ranch is covered in plant life, which includes over 1,000 acres of forested tree canopy with understory and almost 900 acres of native grassland, year-round,” Ellis says.
Due to proper grazing techniques on native grasses, as well as the coastal Bermuda grass and winter wheat they grow, plants on their land naturally take carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in their roots. This summer, they plan to experiment with cover crops on wheat fields not only for carbon sequestration but also to mitigate the need for fertilizer on pastures.
The ranch will also be participating in a multiyear carbon study with Yale University, Skidmore College, and the Noble Research Institute to determine both the amount of carbon sequestered and the carbon sequestration rate in various biome regions. This will help them define their impact on the environment and allow the ranch to determine which biome is sequestering more carbon.
Because they don’t overgraze, deeper roots are established below ground, and a better cover of plants is established above ground. Combined, these act as a natural filtration system for contaminants, etc. The water that surfaces is crystal clear, which helps everyone downstream.
The cattle that graze on this land grow into a nutritious source of beef that is augmented by adhering to the Integrity Beef Alliance (IBA) protocol.
Established in 2000 by the Noble Research Institute, the alliance is a comprehensive beef-production system that emphasizes progressive, sustainable management practices, ranch stewardship, and humane care of animals. G Bar C Ranch, a member of the alliance since its inception, must comply with its stringent guidelines.
For example, the ranch keeps herd-health processing forms on all animals that include information like when and where the calf was vaccinated and what specific product was used.
Because anyone who handles cattle on the ranch is Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) certified, animals are also treated gently and respectfully. The payoff is an animal that is much more docile and easier to work with, which makes for a healthier cow.
The end result is a well-fed, well-watered, and well-cared-for animal that buyers are looking for.
“The idea of the program is to produce a product that is superior to your average calf going through the sale ring,” Ellis says. “By being BQA certified, we are telling buyers that we care about our product.”
Yet, communicating the story of how the ranch is sustainably producing the beef that ultimately ends up between a bun at McDonald’s is a challenge.
“Once our calves are loaded on the truck, we don’t know what happens to them after that,” she says. “We get a check, and that’s the end of our connection.”
From ranch to restaurant
“Every bite of food has a story,” says Chad Ellis (no relation to Meredith Ellis), industry relations and stewardship manager, Noble Research Institute. “We wanted to bring key stakeholders in the beef supply chain together to tell the full story of sustainability so we can learn from one another. We can share data in both directions and actually make a better product.”
To better understand every step of the journey from ranch to restaurant, G Bar C Ranch participated in the Integrity Beef Sustainability Project in 2017 and 2018. This two-year pilot included cow-calf producers who are members of Noble Research Institute’s Integrity Beef Alliance, the Beef Marketing Group (feedlot), Tyson Foods (packer), Golden State Foods (processor), and McDonald’s.
As one of the collaborators, the Noble Research Institute coordinated and provided management services for the project. The information gathered was shared with everyone connected to the animal’s journey as it became a hamburger at McDonald’s. Data was also collected from each segment relative to the metrics established by the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. This will allow each participant to benchmark where they are in the six high-priority indicator areas and work toward continual improvement. (See “Cow-Calf Assessment Report Card” below.)
“Our customers equate McDonald’s with beef,” says Rickette Collins, McDonald’s senior director of global supply chain. “When it comes to our beef supply, this project is an opportunity to collaborate with suppliers, farmers, ranchers, and other companies as well as scientists and academics to identify, elevate, and support practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, optimize positive impacts through agriculture, and support resilient farms and farmer livelihoods at the same time.”
Based on the report’s findings, the company will work to capture key data points, so it can share with customers how its partners are dedicated to providing that quality hamburger in the most sustainable manner possible.
“Our ranch is focused on quality, and we want to be the most progressive ranch that we can possibly be. Telling that story on the McDonald’s platform opens up a lot of opportunities,” Meredith Ellis says. “At the end of my life, I want to be able to say that I did something beneficial for the environment and for my 4-year-old son’s future. I want to be pushed to do better. If you’re not being pushed to do better, then you’re falling behind.”
The Integrity Beef Sustainability Project is a collaboration among cow-calf producers who are members of the Integrity Beef Alliance (Noble Research Institute), Beef Marketing Group (BMG), Tyson Foods, Golden State Foods, and McDonald’s. Its goal is to quantify metrics in an animal’s journey from ranch to restaurant to understand how each segment can become a better part of the whole system.
Step 1: G Bar C Ranch. In 2017 and 2018, G Bar C Ranch raised approximately 110 calves each year for the Integrity Beef Sustainability Project. The calves were born in January and March. Every calf received an EID tag, which allowed it to be traced along every step in the process. Calves were sent to a BMG feedlot at 10 months to 12 months old.
Step 2: BMG. Calves arrived at the Great Bend, Kansas, feedlot in December. During their stay, animals were fed a high-quality ration. In addition, growth performance and health data were collected on each calf and shared with G Bar C Ranch.
Step 3: Tyson Foods. Cattle were sent to Tyson Foods between the end of April and the end of May to be harvested. Carcass data was collected on each animal individually and shared with G Bar C Ranch.
Step 4: Golden State Foods. Some of the meat then went to Golden State Foods, who supplies McDonald’s with some of the 100% beef patties served at its restaurants.
Cow-Calf Assessment Report Card
In 2016, the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) developed a set of six high-priority indicators and developed metrics to measure progress. Based on these criteria, G Bar C Ranch evaluated its 2018 calf crop (approximately 110 calves) that were part of the Integrity Beef Sustainability Project.
Each indicator received a grade of A (exceeding goal), B (meeting goal), or C (not achieving goal).
1. Air and greenhouse gas emissions
- Grazing management: B
- Appropriate nutrition plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions: A
2. Animal health and well-being
- Beef Quality Assurance: A
- Herd health: A
- Animal welfare: B
- Judicious antibiotic use: A
3. Efficiency and yield
- % calf crop weaned of cows exposed: A
- Bull selection: A
- Nutrient management: A
4. Employee safety and well-being
- Stockmanship – CSR report: A
- Conduct and document safety trainings: C
5. Land resources
- Property succession plan: B
- Drought contingency plan: A
- Stocking rate: A
- Evidence of active erosion: B
6. Water resources
- Nutrient management plan: B
- Grazing management plan: A
Findings from the Feedlot, Packer
By participating in the two-year Integrity Beef Sustainability Project, G Bar C Ranch has gained insight into the animals they raise.
“In the past, we had no idea how our calves performed once they left our ranch and went to the feedlot,” says Meredith Ellis, who is the second generation on the Rosston, Texas, ranch.
The animals in this project left G Bar C Ranch weighing between 650 and 800 pounds. Quality is bred into the animals at the ranch through genetic selection. At their next stop, a Beef Marketing Group (BMG) feedlot in Great Bend, Kansas, the characteristics already bred into the animals can be enhanced. BMG is a cooperative that works with local farmers, cow-calf producers, stocker operators, and auction markets to maximize efficiency in its feedlots as well as across the entire value chain.
“We provide a very nutritious ration for the cattle that is overseen by a licensed nutritionist,” says John Butler, BMG chief executive officer. “This high-quality feed allows for that marbling the consumer likes so much to be deposited within the muscle and actually helps the animal get to its optimal end weight sooner.”
During their time at the feedlot, information gathered included typical feedlot performance information like average daily gain and feed efficiency. A morbidity and mortality report delivered to G Bar C Ranch detailed the number of calves doctored for sickness (including the date the animal fell ill as well as the products it was treated with) and whether any of them died.
“Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) has been one of the biggest issues in the feedlot for a long time,” says Myriah Johnson, agricultural economics consultant with the Noble Research Institute. “Even though we’ve put into place better management practices and have better antibiotics, BRD levels continue to increase.”
Since it is now aware of the problem, the ranch could potentially be a part of the solution.
“Is it because our calves are too fleshy and too big? Maybe they need to be smaller. Do the vaccines we’re using need to be different? Or do they need to be administered at a different time? Is it because of the extreme fluctuations in weather the calves experienced this past spring in the feedlot when it was very, very cold one day and very, very hot the next? Is it the feedlot environment calves are in for four months? Having the ability to share this information will be a very powerful tool going forward,” Ellis says.
“Typically, agriculture is a very segmented industry because we are afraid that if we show our cards, we will lose our competitive edge,” Johnson says. “If we start thinking about how we can come together and how we can be better together, we might be able to tackle some of these issues.”
When the calves were harvested, the ranch received information on each animal’s weight, yield grade, quality grade, ribeye area, and back fat from the packer.
“We’re actually able to trace a specific cut of meat back from the calf all the way to the cow and the sire that made that calf,” Ellis says.
Using that knowledge, along with genetics and artificial insemination, they can now make changes from inception, such as improving the quality of the marbling, lessening the amount of fat on the outside of the steak, or making the ribeye bigger or smaller.
“Because we are opening our books to each other and sharing information, we are able to tackle any problems or issues together,” she says. “It’s extremely valuable information.”