Win-Wins on the Path to Sustainable Beef

Sustainability has become an ideal for supply chains and now agriculture around the world. The global beef industry is on a short list of agricultural commodities under particular scrutiny. Keeping in mind that sustainability is the successful overlap of environmental balance, social acceptance and economic success, there are some fundamentals of Ontario production that are points of positive clarity. They are indeed good practices. Here I will focus on genetic opportunities as well as feed production and utilization as examples. Accompanying these are links to web resources that are publicly available as are many of the discussions in the increasingly e-based sustainability dialogue.

Social Acceptance via Genetics

Since the beginning of domestication, humans have applied selection pressure to cattle and other livestock to improve the utility of the animals. Selective breeding as a technique for continuous improvement is not under public scrutiny, and it offers opportunities to improve the position of the beef industry in terms of social licence and profitability. Two examples would be completing the adoption of polled genetics in commercial cattle and the use of high immune function genetics in the quest to reduce antibiotic use.

Polled = Zero Dehorning

Under the current Beef Code of Practice the sector has made it clear in section 4.4 that the farm recommendation is to "use homozygous polled bulls where practical to eliminate the need for disbudding or dehorning" and producers will be required to "Use pain control, in consultation with your veterinarian to mitigate pain associated with dehorning calves after horn bud attachment".

These will become the new normal, and is part of the progression to ending unnecessary pain in calves, essential in maintaining public confidence. I will go farther and say "get on with it!" as polled cattle no longer suffer performance lag. If you are not buying polled bulls you are missing the point; and if you are breeding and selling horned bulls, you are missing the point even more!

Hand holding a hot-iron dehoner

Figure 1. Full implementation of polled genetics is a good example of a technology that can could end hot-iron dehorning, improving animal welfare and ensure social licence.

Better Immune System = Less Antimicrobial Use

The use of antibiotics in farm animal production which are medically important for humans has come under serious scrutiny. Society in general, and in particular physicians have called for increased restrictions on their use in livestock. Although there is much debate about the relative contribution of veterinary antibiotic use to the development of antimicrobial resistance in human pathogens, two things are clear:

  1. preserving antimicrobials for effectiveness in treating humans is of paramount importance
  2. improving the immune system of livestock can reduce the need for antibiotics in the sector.

Improving the overall immune response in livestock through genetics would be a true win-win-win scenario. It would improve the welfare of the animal and thus societal acceptance and mprove the producer's bottom line by reducing veterinary expenses and boosting animal performance. There are new existing and emerging genetic technologies with the promise of achieving this. For example, Semex has recently launched a trait called Immunity+ TM in their beef catalogue which can be seen here, in addition to their dairy catalogue.

Improved Environment via a Sustainable Feed Supply

Major issues that have brought the global beef sector much scrutiny are the climate change and landscape impacts associated with cattle production. Most of these effects result from growing feeds and the digestive process of cattle. In particular, the degradation of soils to produce grain crops and the methane emissions resulting from feeding forage diets are problems. Using the feed supply as effectively as possible reduces the potential negative impacts on a per unit basis of beef produced. Both the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) and Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) speak to some of these issues. These can be accessed at www.grsbeef.org and www.saiplatform.org respectively. There are some elegant materials available through SAI, with one in particular being on methane reduction in livestock production. This document summarizes strategies such as improved forage digestibility, improved feed ingredients, and precision feeding to reduce diet impacts. It also speaks to the use of genetics to improve feed utilization, and identifying animals that produce less methane due to inherent genetic potential. Typically, any strategy that ensures more feed energy is passed in a useable form to the animal means less methane. Technologies that reduce methane also tend to boost performance and feed efficiency as they are linked.

Blue TMR mixer with bucket adding feed.

Figure 2. Careful feed analysis, ration formulation, mixing and delivery to phase-fed and split-sex fed cattle is the basis of precision feeding to reduce methane and boosting feed efficiency.

The point is that producers have the ability, via feedstuff management, to improve the environmental sustainability of their beef operations. And this will also reduce feed costs while assuring consumers that the sector is conscious of its environmental footprint and responding by using technology shown to reduce this impact per unit beef produced.

Sustainable Beef - Environment, Society and Economics

Although the paradigms around sustainable agriculture are often complex, properly applying the convergences of environmental, economic and societal needs via specific technologies can actually provide win-win situations. This is not to say that there won't be challenges as the global beef supply is required to achieve and verify sustainability. But as demonstrated with the examples of selective breeding for polled genetics and immune function, and better managed crops and feedstuffs, there are opportunities to ensure social licence for the beef sector via improved welfare, performance and potential for profit!


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