Continuous Improvement

"Sustainable Beef Production" is a term that is becoming much more common. As companies such as McDonalds and Walmart move towards marketing "sustainable beef", we will hear more about how to achieve it. There are essentially three things that need to be considered to be sustainable: 1) the economic viability, 2) the environmental response, and 3) the social acceptance. In some respects, it is pretty simple, in that it is continuous improvement in "balancing environmental responsibility, economic opportunity and social diligence" (NCBA).

"Sustainable beef production can be defined as meeting current and future demand for safe, nutritious beef products while maintaining long-term business viability, stewardship of natural resources, and responsibilities to community, family, and animals. The optimum balance of the economic, environmental, and social aspects of sustainability will not be the same for each operation, due to differences across production systems including varying climates, available resources (financial capital, human capital, natural resources), and value judgements of both producers and consumers" (Sarah Place, Oklahoma State University).

Beef Production is very complex and diverse. There are a large number of links in the supply chain from conception to consumer and continuous improvement should be made in all of them. See figure 1. Because of the diversity of operations, there is not one solution for all, but everyone in the supply chain needs to do their part.

Everyone in the supply chain needs to do their part.

Figure 1. Everyone in the supply chain needs to do their part.

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There is some good news, as studies have shown improvement for beef production.

By simulating data from the beef production system of the USDA Meat Animal Research Centre (MARC), Rotz et al. (2013) found that the carbon footprint was reduced 6% from 1970 to 2011. Capper (2011) estimated that the U.S. beef carbon footprint was reduced by 16% from 1977 to 2007. Producing beef has reduced resources and thus has become more sustainable. Jude Capper reported that in 2007 it took four animals to produce the same amount of beef as five animals in 1977. Raising beef has become more efficient. Optimizing efficiency across the entire beef chain will be vital in striving for sustainability.

Indicates what USA stakeholders listed when defining sustainability. Continuous improvement in all of these components is necessary.

Figure 2. components of sustainability. Figure 2 indicates what USA stakeholders listed when defining sustainability. Continuous improvement in all of these components is necessary.'

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The National Cattleman's Beef Association (NCBA) has conducted the first and largest sustainability assessment in agriculture under the leadership of their Executive Director of Global Sustainability, Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson. The production of beef is very complex as it probably has more biological processes involved than any other food product when accounting for all of the inputs and outputs of the entire life cycle. The study made a comparison of 2011 compared to 2005 and looked at the entire life cycle.

Highlights from this study include:

  1. Lower energy use
  2. Lower water use
  3. Lower land use
  4. Decrease in the number of working accidents, fatalities and illnesses associated with industries related to beef production.
  5. Improved animal welfare at the feedlot and cow-calf sectors with adoption of Beef Quality Assurance as reflected in a third- party audit of packing plants.
  6. Lower nuisance odours with installation of covered lagoons
  7. Identifying the need to quantify the value of open space and wildlife habitat.
  8. Where a significant amount of the feed used for beef production is inedible to humans, consideration must be given to the conversion of this feed to human edible protein. There are other things like gelatin based foods, medicines, pet food all dependent on animal agriculture, suggesting the carbon footprint is kept low.

These improvements have been accomplished via

  • Improved crop production practices and increased crop yields
  • Improved animal performance with better feed efficiency
  • Usage of distillers grains
  • Improvements in packing plant water efficiency
  • Use of right sized packaging
  • Optimizations in the case ready phase
  • Increased use of biogas capture
  • Conversion from diesel to natural gas

Keeping it Simple - An Action Plan

Here are a few examples of things producers can do to become more sustainable

  1. Get enrolled for updates like OMAFRA Virtual Beef and the Bulletin Board from Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO). There are also a multitude of other newsletters available. Scan the articles and look for ideas which you can implement to improve at least one of the three pillars of sustainability - profit, environment and social.
  2. Attend educational workshops such as cattle handling by Dylan Biggs and implementing the Beef Cattle Code of Practice by Dan Ferguson of BFO.
  3. Improve feed efficiency in your operation (this will be my article in the next issue of Virtual Beef).
  4. Plant trees. Place the trees where they will be of most advantage to you. Most farms can use more windbreaks.


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

Place, S. E. Sustainability: What does it mean and why does it matter? 2015 Beef Improvement Federation Annual Symposium

Rotz, C. A., B. J. Isenberg, K. R. Stackhouse-Lawson, and E. J. Pollack. 2013. A simulation- based approach for evaluating and comparing the environmental footprints of beef production systems. J. Anim. Sci. 91: 5427-5437.

Sustainability Executive Summary - National Cattlemen's Beef Association

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