It’s Time to Tell Beef’s Sustainability Story
People want to have a connection with the food they’re eating. They want to know where it came from, who raised it and how it was raised.
“There are different levels of interest, but we see a thirst for this information,” said Ashley McDonald, Senior Director of Sustainability at the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA). “Our producers are wonderful at what they do, but we haven’t been as good about talking about what we do, who we are, or why we do the things we do. We need to talk about our story; we need to have more communication and campaigns that really put a face to beef production.”
The vast majority of beef operations are family owned, and producers have an excellent story in sustainability to share, whether it’s environmental or conservation practices, improvements in animal nutrition, health and welfare or keeping their rural communities vibrant and thriving.
Sustainability in Beef
While the term sustainability may have taken a little getting used to, the concept has always been a part of the beef industry.
“Consumers are talking about it, and we want to be responsive to our customers, but we also recognize that sustainability has to be based in science if we’re going make improvements,” said McDonald. “We also want to improve the different indicators under the umbrella of sustainability.”
The NCBA membership has directed the organization to work with the supply chain on initiatives that bring everybody to the table to talk about key sustainability issues and find solutions to areas where the industry can improve, educate, communicate those improvements and track improvements over time.
“Our involvement with the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef as well as the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) was a directive straight from our membership - to be part of these initiatives that want to move our industry forward in a positive manner,” she said.
Beef Industry Trends
"Free-from" labeling is not new but a continuing up-trend. Some labels say “antibiotic-free” or “hormone-free” or “GMO-free.”
“Research has shown that the more labels put on, the more people will pay for it,” McDonald said. “When asked if consumers want their beef to be sustainable, the answer is yes. However, if you drill down and ask, ’What do you mean by sustainable,’ consumers don’t exactly know what it means. To some it is just antibiotic-free; to others it is specific production or animal welfare practices.”
The claims on labeling are adding to the confusion but aren’t going away anytime soon. McDonald expects to continue to see a focus on antibiotics as well as grass-fed and organic.
“The organic market is becoming well-established, but NCBA wants to educate consumers about conventionally raised beef,” she said. “Consumers don’t know that 89 percent of a conventionally raised steer’s life was actually on grass. Our goal is to get our producer’s story out and talk more about what we do and how we do it.”
NCBA is preparing for growth in antibiotic free, grass-fed and organic markets as the industry adapts to meet consumer demand.
“We continue to educate the public on why we use certain practices and technologies and why those are beneficial to an operation, but recognize that there is a place for all types of production practices within the beef industry,” she said. “No matter what production system a beef producer has engaged in, not only does NCBA support him or her in that, but we also recognize there’s going to be room for improvement in sustainability practices. So, whether you are traditional or organic, we’ll be there to help you make strides, irrespective of production system chosen.”
Importance of Allied Partnerships
Production agriculture only touches about 2 percent of the population directly. However, when allied industry can partner together, it significantly expands the influence base, allowing us to more efficiently use our resources as an industry to help people understand what beef producers are doing and why we’re doing it, she said.
“Where I see the biggest opportunity is when we can each bring together segments of the supply chain – from the producers all the way through to the retailers who have a direct connection with the consumers,” McDonald said. “Partnerships, like the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the GRSB, can help us to utilize our entire supply chain, share information up and down the supply chain, then ultimately, rely on the end that has direct communication with consumers to bridge the gap.” Consumers thirst for knowledge about where their food comes and why we raise cattle as we do will continue. If we can fill that void by coming together, it will lead to improved trust between our supply chain and consumers, she said.
Novus Offers Nutritional Strategies to Improve Sustainable Efficiency
While there are many areas producers can focus on to improve sustainable efficiency, perhaps the most important way to boost efficiency is through starting an animal off right at the very beginning of its life. Trace minerals are perhaps the most important nutrient a calf will receive as it sets them up for success structurally whether in the bones, epithelium (immunity) or in the blood cells. This doesn’t start once the calf is half grown; it starts before birth with the cow. The impact goes beyond the maternal nutrition of the cow and calf but has an impact on subsequent generations.The industry calls this epigenetics.
Epigenetics is seeing a surge in interest as producers focus on reproductive efficiency. Milk is a poor source of iron, copper, manganese, and to a lesser extent, zinc. This is by design because low levels of these nutrients help to control microbial growth in the immature gastro-intestinal tract. When a calf is born, it needs to have enough trace mineral stores in its body to get it to a point where it’s starting to eat dry feed.
“Feeding the cow before calving to ensure that trace mineral nutrient supply is adequate will impact not only the calf when it grows up and becomes a producing animal, but also the cow having exhausted its stores trying to feed the fetus,” said Dr. Lyle Rode, North American Technical Services Manager. “If you don’t feed the cow properly, she’s not going to rebreed as efficiently, and it will impact her immune status and the calf’s ability to fight off disease and stress.”
Novus’s line of antioxidants helps animals reduce oxidative stress. MINTREX® chelated trace minerals are also critical in maintaining the oxidative balance of the animal.
“While we have known about maternal nutrition for a long time, epigenetics is a very new field. We know that if we can impact the cow when she’s carrying that fetus, we cause changes in the fetus that affect its performance, not only when it becomes a cow, but subsequently through the grand offspring as well,” said Rode.
Alternative Solutions for Beef Producers
“I have a lot of producers tell me that they are doing exactly the same thing they were doing 10 years ago, only now they’re getting sustainability credit for it,” Rode said. “They have to pay for certification processes, but they have had to make very few changes to their process to be labeled as being sustainable.”
Within the movement to categorize these management practices, like grass-fed, all-natural and organic, some producers may be looking for alternative technologies to antibiotics or implants that can deliver the same benefit. The MINTREX® chelated trace mineral line is Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) approved, so if a farm or ranch has plans to reduce antibiotic use or shift to organic or all-natural production, it could be an ideal solution.
Beef producers know calves will experience several times of high stress – weaning, transport and arrival at the feedyard, etc. Supplementing with AGRADO® PLUS can help make these key times of stress easier on calves, especially amid exposure to disease situations.