Sustainability is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. It is defined literally as “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and hereby supporting long-term ecological balance”. This seems like an awfully good description of what cow-calf producers do every day. Sadly though, there are those who accuse our industry of being unsustainable. This has less to do with reality than the hidden agenda of groups who wish to end production agriculture. But perception can become reality in the minds if an uninformed public, so ranchers have a duty to stand up for ourselves and share the wonderful story that is grass-based ranching.
At Isa Beefmasters, cows spend virtually their entire lives on native pasture. Sure we supplement nutrition during times of stress, but the vast majority of their diet is provided by Mother Nature. A cow is a fabulous creature, harvesting energy from the sun, in the form of plants that are not usable directly by humans, to produce tasty, nutrient dense BEEF. And the plants they are harvesting are native perennials which, under good management, will produce year after year using only the rain and sunshine that God gives them. Now if that’s not sustainable, I don’t know what is?
I will be the first to admit that in the larger Beef Chain, grain plays an important role. The majority if beef consumed in this country is grain fed in the final stages of production. But a typical beef animal is 2 years old or less at harvest, and will often spend as much as three quarters of their lives on pasture or in fields. One of the real ironies about the use of grain in agriculture is that it began due to the overproduction of grain caused by the Farm Program paying farmers to grow crops we didn’t need for human consumption. Faced with tremendous oversupply, we began feeding it to livestock rather than burning it.
Animal welfare is another catch-phrase in the modern lexicon. Any rancher knows we spend each day caring for our livestock’s welfare. If cattle are mistreated, sick, undernourished or deprived of water, they cannot be profitable. Healthy, happy cattle will gain weight, reproduce and raise quality calves. Ranchers love their livestock just as a city person would a dog, but this relationship is often not conveyed properly to consumers.
Antibiotics and growth implants are another area of concern to our customers, but often more because of lack of understanding or downright misrepresentation by those who wish to harm our industry. At Isa Beefmasters, cattle are given standard immunizations for disease, just like we immunize our kids against Measles and Tetanus. The use of these vaccines has worked miracles for lowering death loss in calves, which is an important step towards sustainability.
We use simple antibiotics occasionally to doctor a sick animal, much like when we give children antibiotics when they have Strep Throat. Being able to successfully treat sick animals, and prevent the sickness from spreading, is a critical part of ensuring their welfare. Isa Beefmasters never feeds antibiotics or mass treats animals. Is simply not necessary in a pasture environment, and would be cost-prohibitive anyway.
Growth implants (hormones) are also never used in our operation. Because we carry our seedstock through to breeding production, any short-term advantage in weight gain is negated over the course of time. My own personal opinion is that the Beef Industry should voluntarily and collectively stop using growth implants. This is not because they are bad for consumers; in fact science has repeatedly proven that they are not. But the buying public doesn’t like the idea, and no amount of science is going to change that. The Beef Industry has more important battles to fight. If we give up their use collectively, no one loses the advantage.
No discussion about sustainability would be competing without saying a word about Ethanol. This biofuel was foisted on the American public under the guise of sustainability. It sounds good right? Burn “renewable resources“ instead of fossil fuels. But like many ideas born of good intentions, the program came with a whole host of unintended consequences. To begin with, it is estimated that it costs one gallon of diesel to produce one gallon of Ethanol – so it’s just a feel-good pass-through with no real benefit. But it also completely upended the market prices for livestock grains, which in the end raises the price for the Beef you love. The high price of corn caused by Ethanol is also serving to increase land rents, massively increase the use of chemical fertilizers and water from aquifers used for irrigation. In a real twist of irony, it is also greatly reducing bio-diversity as huge acreage of croplands were converted to corn production. The point here is that sustainability is not always what some folks would have us believe.
As a fifth generation rancher (working to raise the sixth), I take offense when people point fingers at the ranching industry. As I’ve outlined above, Beef cattle in America are raised in a very sustainable way. Those who claim otherwise either haven’t taken the time to learn about what we do, or have a different agenda like ending production agriculture or promoting a vegetarian lifestyle. The thing they are overlooking though is that people have to eat. Cattle are “farming the corners”; taking energy from the sun in the form of plants and converting them to nutrient dense, protein rich and super-tasty Beef. And this is being carried out on millions of acres of land not useful for other types of agriculture, especially farming. That is pretty darn sustainable and I am proud to be a part of it.