The four pillars of responsible beef production

Alberta’s cattle feeders take great pride in the crucial role they play in producing our province’s world class beef – and in using responsible and sustainable production methods.

Here at the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association (ACFA), we support our members in continuous improvement under four pillars:

1. Animal care

Alberta’s cattle feeders believe in treating the animals that feed us with care and respect. They follow the National Beef Code of Practice to ensure the finest in animal care, food safety and sustainability.

Two key programs that help them maintain the highest standards of animal care are:

-The Feedlot Animal Care Assessment Program

-The Canadian Livestock Transportation Certification

2. Animal health and production

Ensuring the health and well-being of livestock is a top priority for feedlot operators. ACFA is heavily invested in helping through initiatives such as the new histophilosis vaccine, and through forage and feed grain research.

3. Environment

Cattle feeders work hard to minimize environmental impact from their operations. 

ACFA has participated in several initiatives:

-The Feedlot Emergency Preparedness Plan which protects animals, the environment and human health in the event of an incident such as a disease outbreak or a natural disaster. 

-Environmental impact studies, such as Alberta Agriculture and Resource Development’s Livestock Impact on Groundwater Quality in Alberta.

-Interaction with the Natural Resources Conservation Board on environmental initiatives.

-Membership of the Intensive Livestock Working Group and Agri-Environmental Partnership of Alberta

Project Clean Cow.

4. People and communities

Protecting people, and the communities in which they operate is important for cattle feeders. Food safety, farm safety and community service are at the centre of their everyday operations.

It is on these four pillars that Alberta’s cattle feeders operate in the most responsible manner possible. They strive to ensure excellence in animal care, food safety, farm safety, and respect for people and their communities. At ACFA we are working hard to support them in those efforts.

Think you know the facts about beef production and the environment?

If you think you’ve got all the answers about how beef production impacts the environment, test your knowledge in this fun quiz.

How did you do?

  • If you got up to four answers correct, you were probably surprised to learn that beef production is not as bad for the environment as you thought. In fact, it has many positive impacts on the environment.
  • If you got five or six answers correct,  you’ve got a pretty good handle on the true facts.
  • If you got seven or eight answers correct, there’s no fooling you!

To learn more, check out ‘4 things you should know about beef production and the environment’.

Will eating less meat benefit the environment?

We hear a great deal in the media about the negative impacts of livestock production on the environment. Unfortunately, that’s only half the story, and it’s time for people to take a more balanced look at how to best feed a hungry world.

Why plant crops are not the only answer

All agricultural activities have the potential to create both negative and positive environmental impacts. 

Beef cattle contribute approximately 2.4 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But beef production also has many environmental benefits: 

Carbon sequestration: One acre of healthy grassland can store more than 80 tonnes of carbon. Figures citing beef production emissions do not take into account the approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of GHGs naturally sequestered from the atmosphere by grasslands and pasture.

Biodiversity: Although cattle production uses 33 per cent of Canada’s agricultural land, it supports biodiversity and provides 68 per cent of the Wildlife Habitat Capacity of all agricultural land in Canada (CRSB, 2016).

At-risk species: Several at-risk species, such as burrowing owls, swift fox, greater prairie chicken, sage grouse, black-tailed prairie dogs, and loggerhead shrikes prefer unbroken pasture as their habitat.

Water management: Grasslands help maintain watersheds, which in turn help prevent drought and flooding.

Erosion: Grasslands also help prevent erosion.

Regeneration of unusable land: Grasslands account for about 33 per cent of Canada’s agricultural land, but this is primarily land that is unsuitable for crop production. While beef production makes use of land that is too rocky, hilly, boggy or dry for crop production, it also naturally replenishes and adds nutrients to the soil.

Replacing beef with plant crops would require moving more land into cultivation. This will result in a loss of natural grasslands, the release of soil carbon, reduced biodiversity and the potential loss of several at-risk species. This does not take into account the environmental and financial costs involved in converting native grasslands to crops, then continually irrigating and replenishing the land to maintain those crops.

How did beef production get such a bad rap?

The oft-quoted negative impacts of beef production on the environment come primarily from two discredited sources:

‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ was a 2006 UN study that cites a number of incorrect facts, statistics and statements. For example, it asserted that 18 per cent of global GHG emissions come from livestock. Later studies conducted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) conclude that the true figure is only about five per cent. 

‘Cowspiracy’ is a 2014 Hollywood film which likewise uses incorrect facts and statements to argue that we should move away from a meat-based diet.

Despite the fact that these two sources have been emphatically discredited and disproved, they are still incorrectly quoted as ‘proof’ that livestock production is environmentally unsustainable.

Continued improvement

Like any responsible industry, Canada’s beef producers are dedicated to improving their impact on the environment. The true facts about Canadian beef’s contribution to climate change reflect this effort:

– Canadian beef has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world: 11.4 kg of carbon dioxide per one kg of live cattle weight.

– Cattle contribute very little to total Canadian and global GHG emissions: GHGs from cattle are 2.4 per cent of total Canadian GHG emissions and 0.04 per cent of total global GHG emissions. In Canada, 28 per cent of GHGs come from transportation.

– Canada’s beef industry reduced its GHG footprint by 14 per cent from 1981 to 2011. Canada now produces the same amount of beef with 29 per cent less breeding stock, 27 per cent less slaughter cattle, and 24 per cent less land.

Cattle feeding and the environment

In Canada, beef cattle are primarily raised on natural grassland and pasture for about 12 to 15 months, and then they are ‘finished’, often at a feedlot, using high-energy grain rations. 

85 per cent of the grain fed to livestock is unfit for human consumption and would otherwise be considered waste.

This combination of pasture followed by feedlot allows us to use less land, less water and emit fewer greenhouse gases, putting Canadian beef producers among the most efficient in the world.

Making up your mind with all the facts

Next time you’re faced with a delicious, nutritious steak, consider that beef production has many benefits for the environment, and that beef producers are working successfully to reduce any impacts that their activities do have. 

Not only is beef an important part of a healthy, balanced diet, it’s production also plays an important role in protecting our native grasslands and supporting Canadian wildlife and eco-systems.

The truth about beef production and sustainability

Canada’s beef producers want consumers to know that they are producing good, healthy food in a sustainable way. 

But, what does sustainable mean, and what are beef producers doing to foster responsible production? For answers to these questions we turned to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB).

CRSB is a collaborative, multi-stakeholder organization dedicated to promoting sustainability throughout the Canadian beef industry. They have three main pillars of focus: 

1) Sustainability benchmarking – a farm-to-fork assessment of the overall performance of the Canadian beef industry from environmental, social and economic perspectives.

2) The Certified Sustainable Beef Framework, which provides a tool for producers to attain certification against sustainability standards, which can then be communicated to consumers.

3) Sustainability projects, which help advance continuous improvement for sustainability in the Canadian beef industry.

“We define sustainability as a socially responsible, economically viable and environmentally sound product that prioritizes the planet, people, animals and progress,” said Andrea White, CRSB’s community engagement manager.

CRSB has adopted the same five focus areas as the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB): natural resources; people and the community; animal health and welfare; food; and efficiency and innovation. 

Some recent projects which have come from the organization include the National Beef Sustainability Assessment and Strategy (2016), CRSB Certified Sustainable Beef Framework (2018), collaboration on a Species at Risk on Agricultural Lands project, intended to maintain and enhance wildlife habitat, and a study evaluating consumer perceptions of beef sustainability.

How is the beef industry doing on sustainability?

“One of our priorities is to teach the public that beef production in Canada is already sustainable,” Andrea said. “There are a lot of loud voices out there telling very small pieces of the story, but they often don’t talk about the many ways beef production actually benefits the environment. By working together as an industry, we can tell the whole story, and demonstrate the good work we are doing.”

You can read about the ways beef production benefits the environment in ‘4 things you should know about beef production and the environment’.

Through a combination of sustainability projects and public outreach, the CRSB aims to support continuous improvement in the industry’s sustainability performance, while simultaneously creating public awareness of the true facts about the impact of beef production on communities, animal care and the environment. “Sustainability is a journey, not an end point,” said Andrea.

Cattle feeders and sustainability

Sustainability is a top priority for Alberta’s cattle feeders, so the appointment of Les Wall of KCL Cattle Co., in Coaldale Alberta, to the CRSB Council is good news. 

“We are pleased to have Les Wall, a progressive and innovative producer, join the CRSB Council,” said Anne Wasko, CRSB chair. “We look forward to his valuable expertise and experience in representing the cattle feeding sector on our multi-stakeholder leadership team, to help propel the sustainability of Canadian beef forward.”

To learn more about the work that cattle feeders are doing to improve the sustainability of their operations, check out ‘The beef industry and sustainability: how are we doing and where could we improve?

Alberta sunshine provides an environmentally friendly energy source to cattle feeders

Alberta’s cattle feeders work hard to reduce their environmental footprint, and many are turning to solar energy for help.

KCL Cattle Company is one feedlot that’s taking advantage of Alberta government subsidies to install solar panels. Check out this short video in which Les Wall is interviewed about their decision to use solar energy:

Other initiatives to help reduce the environmental footprint of Alberta’s beef industry include ongoing emissions research, environmental impact studies and collaboration with organizations such as the Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) Policy Advisory Group and Agri-Environmental Partnership of Alberta.

Read more about beef production and the environment in ‘The beef industry and sustainability: how are we doing and where could we improve?’.

Is grass-fed beef better?

Image Credit: KCL Cattle Company Ltd.

Eating well is no simple matter. Our global marketplace offers a world of choices, and the information available on those food choices can be contradictory and complicated. In today’s blog post we explain the difference between grass-fed and grain-finished beef and explore their nutritional values and environmental impacts.

Grass-fed and grain-finished beef explained

All cattle eat grass and forage for most of their lives. This means they graze in the pasture during the summer months and are then fed forages such as silage (fermented grass crops) or hay during the winter.

Some cattle are grass- and forage-fed for their entire lives.

Other cattle are slowly moved to a diet consisting of grains such as corn or barley, for about three or four months before they go to market. This diet helps the cattle put on weight faster, and produces a higher quality, more marbled meat. This generally takes place in a feedlot.

A nutritional comparison

According to Canada Beef, grass-fed beef is leaner than grain-finished beef by about two to four grams of fat per 100 grams of trimmed meat. Dietitians agree this is an insignificant amount in the context of the amount of fat we consume on a daily basis. 

Both types of beef contribute nutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamin B, calcium and potassium, as well as small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, and both contain the same amount of cholesterol.

You can read more about the dietary impacts of beef in your diet in ‘4 ways proposed changes to the Canada Food Guide could be bad for our health’.

Environmental impact

Beef production, perhaps surprisingly, benefits the environment in many ways, because the industry is helping preserve Canada’s natural grasslands. Pastures help maintain watersheds, sequester carbon, prevent erosion, support biodiversity and provide habitats for a variety of different species.

That being said, grain-finished beef has a lower carbon footprint than grass-fed beef because of the higher efficiency of this finishing method. Grass-fed cattle are typically harvested at between 20 to 24 months of age, and at a weight of 1,000 to 1,400 pounds. Grain-fed cattle, on the other hand, are harvested at about 14 to 18 months of age and at a weight of about 1,400 to 1,500 pounds. 

Because the grain-finishing phase is so much more efficient than grass-finishing, resulting in more food in less time, grain-fed beef has a lower carbon footprint than grass-fed.

‘4 things you should know about beef production and the environment’ explains more about the environmental impacts of the beef industry.

Myth or fact? 5 beef myths debunked

Have you ever heard people say that eating meat is bad for our environment and our planet? In this latest Myth vs Fact post, we’re exploring some common misconceptions about beef production, so you can eat that next steak with a clear conscience.

#1 Beef cattle are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions

Cattle account for only 2.4 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – compared to 28 per cent for transportation. Cattle in Canada also produce some of the lowest GHGs in the world thanks to best practices developed through ongoing research. 

#2 We don’t need to eat meat – we can simply substitute it with plant proteins

Plant proteins such as beans and lentils are wholesome, nourishing foods. But it is wrong to assume that they can provide the same amount of protein per unit of food as beef. One 75 gram (2.6 ounces) serving of beef contains the same amount of protein as about two cups of beans. The plant-based protein is also not as easily digested and is missing important nutrients such as Vitamin B12 and heme iron – the type of iron most readily absorbed by the body.

Like beef, plant proteins have an important part to play in a balanced diet, but they cannot be compared, portion for portion, as a substitute.

#3 We need to eliminate beef production for the sake of the environment

Eliminating beef production would help reduce our GHG emissions by a small amount, but there are other significant reasons why pastureland is good for the environment:

    • Only 26 per cent of our native rangelands remain intact in Canada, and those would be lost without grazing animals to maintain their health. As an ecosystem, those grasslands support biodiversity and help retain water.
    • Grasslands provide important habitats for migratory birds, species at risk and other wildlife.
    • Grasslands store carbon, which would be released into the atmosphere if they were cultivated.

The relationship between cattle and wildlife is recognized by the World Wildlife Fund in its ‘2017 Annual Plowprint Report’.

#4 Feeding cattle is a waste of resources that should be used to benefit people

Cattle and other grazing animals in Canada are typically raised on land, and fed foods that might otherwise be unusable:

    • Most pastureland is unsuitable for crop production.
    • 86 per cent of all cattle feed in Canada is not fit for human consumption. 
    • Only nine per cent of cropland in Canada is used to grow grain specifically for cattle feed.
    • Food animals also play a huge role in recycling the by-products of human food production. For instance, cattle are fed the leftover grains from the production of beer, whiskey and other alcohols, which would otherwise be considered waste.

#5 Our food production is being taken over by huge, corporate factory farms

Ninety-eight per cent of Canadian farms, both large and small, are owned and operated by families. Some have been in the family for five or more generations. These farmers have been raised on the land, and they care deeply about preserving it for their own children and generations to come. 

They work hard to raise their animals in comfortable, low-stress environments. 

They understand that if animals are unhealthy or stressed they will not grow to their full potential. Even in an intensive livestock setting, healthy, well cared for animals help ensure the health of the operation.

So, next time you’re at the grocery store, wondering what to make for dinner, you won’t do better than a good serving of Canadian beef. It’s good for you, and raised ethically, sustainably and humanely.

For more in our Myth vs Fact posts, check out ‘3 feedlot myths busted’ and ‘Busted! 5 beef myths that don’t stand up to the facts’.

Working together to learn about conservation and agriculture

The Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area, about 15 minutes southwest of Calgary, has long been a favourite field trip destination for local schools and educators.

Now, thanks to a collaboration with Inside Education – a non-profit group supporting multiple perspectives on environmental and natural resources in Alberta – the area could become a site for ongoing agricultural education.

“Inside Education and Cross Conservation bring complementary expertise to agriculture education,” said Kathryn Wagner, program director at Inside Education.

Inside Education has a suite of agriculture education programs, including classroom presentations, agriculture career summits, school garden grants and teacher professional development programs supporting the K-12 curriculum. In the coming years, they hope to add a provincewide youth agriculture education summit, field-based programs and classroom resources.

Cross Conservation offers experiential nature and discovery programs to children of all ages.

How a collaboration could work

The collaboration came through an introduction by the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association (ACFA).

Kathryn said initial ideas include credit-based programs, an agriculture demonstration site for both student programs and teacher professional development, and field trips that use the conservation area, local producers and other sites.

The goal is to provide up-to-date, relevant and meaningful agriculture education to inspire young people to be engaged environmental stewards and responsible decision-makers. 

“Working together with Cross Conservation, we can encourage students and teachers to consider how environmental, societal and economic values can be balanced on the landscape,” Kathryn said.

Representatives from Inside Education and ACFA plan to tour the Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area this summer.

You can learn more about agriculture education in How student-managed farming is teaching the next generation of beef producers, and How Olds College is preparing agriculture students for the future.

This is the third post in our Agriculture Education series. 

Why water management is vital to rural and urban residents

We all rely on the health of our water systems for survival. Every day we use water for drinking, cooking and cleaning and to grow the foods we eat and nourish the plants and wildlife around us.

The Oldman Watershed is a large water system that covers 23,000 square kilometres in southwest Alberta and 2,100 square kilometres in Montana. Given Alberta’s semi-arid climate, the management and maintenance of this huge water system is crucial for the 230,000 people who live in the region, for agricultural and industry, and to keep the rivers healthy.

The Oldman Watershed Council

The Oldman Watershed Council (OWC) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to encouraging watershed management under the province’s Water for Life Strategy.

Shannon Frank, executive director of OWC, explained that the watershed supplies all the water the residents of the region use at home, at work and on the farm, so it is critical that we protect it.

Urban and rural residents can adopt many best practices to lessen their impact on the watershed.

“For urban people, their biggest impact is in storm water runoff and being careful what they do in their yards – things like picking up pet waste, using fertilizers and pesticides carefully so they don’t run off,” said Shannon.

She added that some people believe storm water is treated but that’s a myth, and it goes directly into our rivers and creeks. 

“For rural people and agricultural producers in particular, the key is leaving buffer zones around water bodies. Keeping cattle away from water bodies and leaving or seeding vegetated buffer zones between water and crops is also important. These practices keep bacteria, nutrients and pesticides from running off and into our water.”

One of the ways the Council encourages investment in best practices is by offering grants.

The Watershed Legacy Program

Through the legacy program, agricultural producers can apply for a grant to cover up to 50 per cent of the cost to buy materials like fencing, watering units or biocontrol bugs.

“Those are the types of projects we typically see, although we accept any projects that benefit the watershed,” said Shannon. “We have had a couple of applications for bridges or rig mats to create a hard surface for cattle crossings over water.”

The legacy program has been in effect since 2009, and since that time has funded 55 projects, each of which has helped improve water quality and fish and wildlife habitat.

Watershed Legacy Program

“This year we aim to expand the program to include outreach, and provide education on what the best practices are,” said Shannon. “We want to celebrate those using them and share success stories to encourage further adoption.” 

Over the last few decades, Canada’s beef producers have made it a priority to reduce their water footprint. Between 1981 and 2011, they were able to reduce the amount of water required to produce one kilogram of beef by 17 per cent, primarily through the use of more efficient feeds and enhanced cattle rearing practices.

Why ‘hormone-free’ beef is no better for people or the environment

Last week on this blog we busted some common myths around beef production, including the ‘hormone-free’ myth. This week, we offer more facts about hormones and beef.

Foods and hormones

Dr. Roy Lewis, a veterinarian at Westlock Veterinary Center in Westlock, AB, told us that roughly 98 per cent of cattle in Canada are implanted with hormones, but in quantities significantly lower than would be naturally present in an intact (uncastrated) bull.

“In fact,” he continued, “many healthy, nutritious foods contain more hormones, serving for serving, than beef – foods such as cabbage, eggs, alfalfa sprouts and soy”.

Hormone levels in foodsNo one would suggest eliminating these healthy food options because of their naturally occurring hormones, and yet beef contains considerably less.

Research has also shown that hormones consumed in food are broken down in the stomach during digestion. They do not result in hormone spikes, even when consumed in high levels.

The environment and hormones

Cattle are implanted with hormones to promote growth. “This allows beef producers to produce more beef using less grain, less water and less time,” said Dr. Lewis. “The environmental benefits of producing more with less are significant.”

How marketing creates misconceptions

“There is no such thing as ‘hormone-free’ beef,” said Dr. Lewis. “All animals and plants produce hormones as part of their natural life-cycle.

The ‘hormone-free’ movement is a marketing scheme that attempts to create a differentiation that doesn’t exist. It seems to me that we’re taking a step backwards to promote this as something special, because there are no food safety benefits, and they’re suggesting that a less sustainable production method is somehow superior.

You can learn more about beef hormones, and read about food safety research on Alberta Beef’s Worried about Hormones? web page.

Check out the other myths we addressed in ‘Busted! 5 beef myths that don’t stand up to the facts’.