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A cowboy’s place in the sustainability conversation

debibishop /Getty Images Black and red cow grazing
CATTLE: Cattle production is a vital part of the environmental system, and cattle producers have a critical place in the conversation around sustainability, says Sara Place, chief sustainability officer at Elanco Animal Health.
Sara Place, Elanco chief sustainability officer, speaks to Kansas Livestock Association members about their roles.

Sara Place wants cattle producers to understand they have a place in the sustainability conversation. You might say they’re key to the whole picture.

Place spoke to the 2021 Kansas Livestock Association annual meeting, Dec. 3, in Wichita, Kan. As chief sustainability officer for Elanco Animal Health Inc., Place works to educate not only nonfarm consumers, but also livestock producers about the role animals play in the larger sustainability picture.

Sara Place, Chief Sustainability Officer at Elanco Animal Health, Inc.,
SUSTAINABILITY: Sara Place, chief sustainability officer at Elanco Animal Health, spoke to Kansas Livestock Association members at their annual meeting on Dec. 3 in Wichita, Kan. She says the stewardship of land and livestock that cattlemen provide is a sustainability achievement, and one they should take pride in. (Jennifer M. Latzke)

“It’s this amazing ability of these ruminant animals to take, basically, plants we can’t eat, and make a high-quality, really nutrient-dense food — that is, beef,” she says. Stewarding land and animals and wildlife habitat, she says, is a critical point in the sustainability of the environmental system. But it’s often something that “humble” cattle producers, she adds, don’t emphasize enough when environmentalists start pointing fingers at cattle production.

Place helps cattle producers understand how they can be more efficient in their stewardship of land and resources, and how they can be more efficient in their cattle production.

“Because, honestly, that’s what drives down emissions per pound of beef,” she says. And by doing so, cattlemen can lower the environmental impact of what they do.

One last barbecue

Place says livestock have a critical role to play in the grand ecosystem for both human health and environmental health. Take them out of the equation — say, have one last grand barbecue and then never raise livestock again — and you would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but only by 2.6 percentage points. That’s getting rid of all chickens, cattle, pork, everything, she says, which is realistically not going to happen.

But, think about the trade-offs with that happening; it turns into a ripple effect that has major consequences.

First, there are the nutritional trade-offs for the human population. Primarily, humans lose the essential vitamin B12 in our food supply, which, she says, only comes from animal-sourced foods. “That’s a critical trade-off and one that really, you could argue, is definitely not going to be worth it, right from that standpoint,” she says.

But then, consider the consequences of taking away livestock manure as a source of fertilizer in fields.

“It’s a way for us to cycle nutrients in our agricultural system,” she says. “Taking the plants that the animals eat and digest and putting it back on the landscape, that’s the very basics of agriculture.” Get rid of those animals, and now that recycling service doesn’t exist, and petroleum-based fertilizers with an emissions cost will have to be used.

Simply put, getting rid of animal agriculture isn’t the ecological savings that some believe.

Cut waste

If farmers and ranchers want to be more sustainable in the producing and consuming of food, one way they can do better is by reducing waste.

“We know that in the U.S., we waste about 30% to 40% of edible food,” Place says. That’s a big hit to our grocery bills when we throw out food, but that’s also adding to the methane that’s generated by landfills, she adds.

On the animal production side, doing everything we can to ensure to have efficient herds that have successful pregnancies means less water and land resources are wasted to maintain an open female.

“From a cow-calf perspective, basically, an open cow is the most costly environmental thing that you have on your operation,” Place says. “She’s probably super-costly economically as well.” So, when cattlemen use their natural resources to turn into productive assets, aka calves, to be sold, that’s progress from an economic and environmental perspective, she adds.

Cattle and fires

We know that cattle grazing reduces fuel loads in wildlands that can blaze up into massive wildfires that fill our skies with smoke and greenhouse gas emissions, Place says.

“The challenge has been in the Western U.S. — like in California — that we have these forests that can be great carbon sinks,” she explains. “But if they catch on fire, they become a carbon source.” And that can be greater than the methane produced by cattle in their enteric fermentation. When cattle producers talk to consumers, it’s worth noting that the methane cattle emit in the act of grazing those lands to reduce fuel loads is far lower-impact than if there’s a catastrophic wildfire, and all that carbon that was sequestered in those forests is added to the atmosphere.

Place says the cattle industry is sustainable, and the science continues to back up cattle producer’s roles in the larger picture for our planet. That’s indeed something to take pride in. 

TAGS: Beef
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