Cattle Feeding: More Intense Equals Less Environmental Expense

[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”20″]By: Casey G. Vander Ploeg

Getting a handle on how various economic activities impact the environment is neither simple nor straightforward. In fact, a lot of what we think is good for the environment may not really be that good at all. Some of what we think is bad for the environment is the opposite.

A case in point concerns how we raise beef.

For many people, Alberta’s beef industry conjures up the mental image of cattle and calves roaming and grazing on lush green, hilly pastures under the nice warm sunshine. The scene is pleasant, serene, and idyllic. It might even give some of us those warm fuzzies.[/vc_column_text][mk_image src=”” image_width=”900″ image_height=”400″ crop=”false” svg=”false” lightbox=”false” group=”_general” frame_style=”simple” target=”_self” caption_location=”inside-image” align=”center” margin_bottom=”25″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]Contrast this with cattle on a modern feeding operation. No matter how you cut it, this does not conjure up the same warm fuzzies. And because it doesn’t, many also wrongly conclude that today’s modern feeding operation is not as environmentally friendly.

At a very simple yet fundamental level, there are two ways one can raise beef. The first is to take a laissez-faire or hands-off approach. This is sometimes called extensive livestock production. That’s the sentimental scene of cattle roaming the hilly pastures. The second way is to intervene. This is the more hands-on or intensive approach—the modern feeding operation.

In times past, beef production was more extensive or hands-off. The herd was set loose and allowed to roam free and graze when and where they would. When it came time to market, cowboys rounded ‘em up and took ‘em down the trail.

Today’s cattle producers have invested themselves and their cattle into a wide range of safe, proven, and highly efficient modes of production. This investment includes vastly improved genetics and more efficient animals. It also includes better feed, improved feeding regimens, and well performing high-energy rations. The result? More pounds of beef while using less land, air, and water.

This investment has enabled Canadians to produce as much beef today as we did in 1950, but using 45 million less acres to do it.

Another benefit of this investment concerns the cattle themselves. When cattle are allowed to roam free they are good targets—for both predators and disease. When cattle are properly housed and cared for they can be better protected, tended, and treated. Cattle on today’s modern feeding operations not only have their own family doctor (i.e., the feedlot’s veterinarian), they also have their own dietary advisor (i.e., the feedlot’s nutritionist). This is just as much about the natural environment as it is about good animal care.

In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN published a very controversial report called Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. The report discussed the environmental challenges related to global livestock production, but also stated that the best way to mitigate those impacts is more intensive operations.

“By far, the largest share of emissions come from more extensive systems, where poor livestock holders often extract marginal livelihoods from dwindling resources,” noted the report. In fact, 70% of global livestock emissions were attributed to pastured livestock and only 30% to feedlot livestock.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with how well cattle convert forage and feed into pounds of beef. And here, grass just doesn’t compare when put against the grain rations in a feeding operation. What is more, a recent study in the Journal of Animal Science found that on balance, grass-fed cattle produce four times the methane as grain-fed cattle.

Today’s modern feeding operations are highly sophisticated operations. They are also highly regulated by entities such as Alberta Environment, Alberta Sustainable Resources, and the Natural Resources Conservation Board. Cattle feeders adhere to these regulations, we often exceed them, and we value the natural environment as much as any Albertan.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Agriculture: Alberta’s Economic Backstop

[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]By: Casey G. Vander Ploeg[/vc_column_text][mk_image image_width=”900″ image_height=”400″ crop=”false” svg=”false” lightbox=”false” group=”_general” frame_style=”simple” target=”_self” caption_location=”inside-image” align=”left” margin_bottom=”30″ src=””][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”30″]The “boom-bust” cycle is alive and well in Alberta. The price of oil (WTI) is now flirting with $45 a barrel, down from a high of $105 in May. While that drop is significant, it’s still not as sharp or deep as the collapse in the recession of 2008. In July 2008, oil was trading at $145 a barrel. By December, it had fallen to $30.

Economists have long lamented the rollercoaster that is Alberta’s economy, arguing the province needs to pursue a strategy for “economic diversification.” In 1984, the Lougheed government called for that very thing in a “white paper” called Proposals for an Industrial and Science Strategy for Albertans. The diversification mantra was later picked up by other provinces in the West, that—like Alberta—suffer the vagaries of commodity prices on the world market.

While there is a lot of talk across the province over the sad state of affairs with oil, there is another economic undercurrent that sees things working in the opposite direction. While no less dramatic, that story has just drawn less attention.[/vc_column_text][mk_fancy_title tag_name=”h2″ style=”false” color=”#393836″ size=”30″ font_weight=”inherit” font_style=”inhert” txt_transform=”none” letter_spacing=”0″ margin_top=”0″ margin_bottom=”18″ font_family=”none” align=”left”]Cattle prices[/mk_fancy_title][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]In January 2010, the average monthly price for a fed steer in Alberta was $78 per hundred weight. That’s about $1,100 for a market-ready beef steer weighing in at 1,400 pounds. In January 2014, the price was $137 per hundred weight. In December, the price had climbed to $182. That’s over $2,500 for a fed steer. Feeder cattle are also catching hefty sums. The average price of a 550 pound feeder in January 2014 was $170 per hundred weight, rising to $292 in December.

So, as oil continues to stumble and tumble its way downward, the price of cattle keeps rising. At the same time as energy companies flood the world market with oil in a desperate attempt to maintain revenues—driving the price down even lower—a growing shortage of cattle across North America could well see cattle prices reaching even higher. Never before have Alberta cattle producers received such hefty sums.

The point here is two-fold:
First, there is no question that energy drives the Alberta economy. Direct activity in the oil and gas sector (including extraction, economic supports, distribution, construction, petroleum product manufacturing, wholesale distribution, pipelines) accounted for 33.4% of provincial GDP in 2013.

But, the province has always had an important economic backstop in the agriculture and agri-food industry. While few in the city tend to give agriculture much thought, it does play an important economic role in a province so heavily tilted toward energy.

In 2012, almost 80,000 Albertans were employed in the province’s agriculture and agri-food industry. The combined activity of cropping and livestock, wholesale distribution and trade, and food and beverage manufacturing reached over $11 billion in 2013.

To be sure, the impact of agriculture pales in comparison to energy, and it alone cannot fill the economic void left by plunging oil prices. Yet, agriculture remains a vibrant, dynamic, and essential sector that helps keep the provincial economic ship afloat. This is especially the case considering Alberta’s hundreds of small rural towns and villages.

The importance of agriculture is drawn into sharper relief when viewed from a go-forward basis. As the world’s population continues to grow, the demand for food will grow alongside. As emerging economies continue to see growth in real incomes, the demand for high quality proteins like beef will grow as well.

That leads me to my second point. At the same time as a lack of diversity in Alberta’s larger economy creates severe—and often painful—limitations, a lack of diversity in Alberta’s products and markets for beef will limit our industry’s future opportunities as well. Securing new markets for beef and offering new beef products tailored to fit and satisfy those markets presents us with our very own “inter-industry” diversification challenge.

To get there, a lot of things will have to go right, from growing the provincial and national beef herd to securing the necessary trade agreements—and everything in between. There’s a lot of work to do here. And right now, Alberta needs us to do it.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]