Cattle and the Environment: Leading the Way in Conservation
“As discussed below, properly grazed cattle can produce human food from land unsuitable for crops, regenerate land, reduce wildfire hazard, and help wildlife.
NOTE: this article was originally published to BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com on April 12, 2023. It was written by Karen Weintraub.
It is often an untold story, but ranching families have led conservation efforts across the United States for generations.
Today’s farmers and ranchers are strong examples of true conservationists. They have a deep love and appreciation for the land because it in turn supports their families. These hard-working people are dedicated to caring for the resources entrusted to them, and they also know first-hand that caring for the environment through regenerative practices protects their way of life for future generations.
Conservation principles are used at every point in the beef lifecycle, starting with pasture-based cow-calf farms and ranches, to the cattlemen and women who feed cattle at feedyards. The practices look diﬀerent based on geography, but collectively, these eﬀorts help maintain and improve the environment.
Let’s explore the ways that the beef community cares for the environment with examples from across the country.
Protecting the Land
Farmers and ranchers are dependent on the land and fully appreciate the importance of conserving the resources and benefits these areas offer all of us through regenerative practices.
Their commitment to the land is highlighted by the fact that 91% of beef cattle operations are family-owned, and 78% of beef farmers and ranchers intend to pass their operation on to future generations. This longstanding commitment brings with it a strong sense of pride in the lifestyle, the animals and the land.1
Range and pasture lands are located in all 50 states. Livestock grazing is the primary use of approximately 29 percent of all U.S. land including grassland, pasture and rangeland. Often, the land cattle graze on is not suitable for growing other food products, as it is too rocky, arid, or steep. While some argue that cattle use too much land, these arguments do not consider the countless, invaluable ecosystem services, that cattle on grazing lands provide. Ecosystem services are the benefits that society receives from an ecosystem. In particular, managed grazing can support biodiversity, provide wildlife habitat, enhance carbon sequestration, and contribute to nutrient cycling.
“My parents raised us to be good stewards of the land and our livestock. We look out for not only our cattle, but the grass they eat, the trees they rest under and the wildlife they share the land with.” – Jake Geis, Rancher and Veterinarian, South Dakota
Additionally, ranches safeguard ecosystem services because they conserve rangeland, protect open space, and maintain traditional ranching culture.2
And don’t worry – U.S. cattle ranching is not contributing to deforestation. In fact, unlike many other countries, the U.S. is actually undergoing net afforestation, meaning that we are gaining forest land at a higher rate than we are losing it3, further proving farmers’ and ranchers’ commitment to practices that regenerate the land’s resources. Instead, the rate of urban sprawl in the U.S. is of greater concern for protecting our ecosystems. For example, since 1984, more than 1.4 million acres of agricultural land in California have been converted for other uses – 78% of which was converted to urban areas.4
A recent study contracted by the Beef Checkoff using Census of Agriculture data found that the economic value of ecosystem services from U.S. beef cattle ranching was an estimated $24.5 billion annually. This breaks down to a value of $1,043 per beef cow, highlighting the indispensable nature of these services.5Furthermore, these ecosystem services would likely be lost if grazing land is converted or developed.
Cattle Water Use
Taking into account all water from farm to fork, it takes 308 gallons of water for every pound of edible, consumed beef produced in the U.S. Approximately 95 percent of this water used in cattle production is for the irrigation of crops used for feeding cattle. The water cattle use for drinking represents around 1 percent of the total water used in beef production. Irrigation practices used by farmers continues to improve, which means each drop of water is used more efficiently to sustain plants, and less is lost to evaporation or run off.
Keep in mind that water used for raising cattle is not “used up.” The water cycle we all studied in elementary school still works. Water percolates into aquifers, it runs down streams into lakes and oceans, it evaporates and returns as precipitation, and cattle pastures provide land to filter this water and return it to the ecosystem.
Many cattle ranches implement water conservation and environmental eﬀorts including conducting water quality tests, fencing oﬀ streams to protect ﬁsh habitat and waterways, reclaiming, ﬁltering and reusing water whenever possible, creating man-made irrigation ponds and increasing aeration in manure-holding lagoons. According to a national survey of U.S. beef farmers and ranchers, 99.8 percent of respondents employ at least one water quality improvement practice recommended by the Natural Resources Conservation Service6. Additionally, in a 2017 survey, 94% of cattlemen and women indicated that protecting natural resources like water was a very high priority for them.7 An increasing number of ranches are also collecting rainfall or using underground wells to save water and make sure the environment is sustainable for future generations.
Learn more about beef sustainability and water use by viewing the factsheet Does Beef Really Use That Much Water?
“When you get to where you think you’re going to be, need to be, you’re always seeing how you can make improvements to be even better.” – Mike Philips, Rancher, Virginia
CATTLE ARE “UPCYCLERS”
Cattle have a unique four-chambered stomach, the largest chamber being the rumen, which helps them get the nutrients they need from a variety of plants that humans don’t consume or can’t digest. In addition to the grasses they graze on for most of their lives, cattle can eat numerous other food byproducts. They can take items like brewers’ grains, pea pulp, beet tops, and potato peelings and turn those products into beef. These byproducts, or leftovers, are often mixed into their feed, along with other grasses or hay like alfalfa and grains like corn. Cattle are acting as “upcyclers” in our food system by upgrading human inedible material or edible food waste into high-quality protein and essential micronutrients.
For example, in Wisconsin, about 71,000 acres are dedicated to potato production, which results in almost 1.6 million tons of potatoes annually.8 Culled potatoes, or those that do not meet prescribed appearance standards for supermarket use, are instead incorporated into properly balanced feed rations for cattle.
Cattle’s ability to upcycle also helps to reduce landfill waste. In fact, for every 100 lbs. of human food produced from crops, there are 37lbs of plant leftovers produced, which cattle can then upcycle into protein, micronutrients, and other important products.9, 10
Given that municipal solid waste landfills accounted for ~14% of methane emissions in the U.S. in 2017, cattle are indirectly helping to reduce landfill methane emissions through the consumption of edible food waste (USDA, 2017).
CASE STUDY: TARGETED GRAZING FOR WILDFIRE MITIGATION
Livestock grazing can be used as a tool to lower wildfire risk by controlling the amount, height and distribution of grasses and forage that fuels wildfire. In fact, sheep and cattle grazing has been used globally as a tactic for reducing fire risk.11When grasses and forages are not grazed they can accumulate, leaving large amounts of fuel for any wildfire that occurs. These increased fuel loads can result in the wildfires burning hotter and more intensely. When wildfires reach higher temperatures, they can kill the beneficial microbes living in the soil, in turn negatively impacting soil health.
In a study conducted on California rangelands, they found that on average, cattle removed 596 pounds of fuel per acre, in addition to reducing rangeland fuels by preventing or slowing the encroachment of brush and trees.12 By reducing fuel loads, cattle help to reduce the size and severity of wildfires, thereby protecting community infrastructure, public safety, and ecosystem services. Wildfires also pose serious health risks to our communities, emitting about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year and contribute 25% of small particle pollution in some years.13 In fact, large scale fires can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in just a few weeks as the states’ entire motor vehicle traffic in a year.13
As wildfires are predicted to increase in severity and frequency, cattle will continue to serve as a critical tool in preserving our ecosystems and communities.12
REWARDING AND RECOGNIZING ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP
To honor the farmers and ranchers who make environmental stewardship a priority on their farms and ranches, the beef community created the Environmental Stewardship Award Program in 1991 and receives support from Corteva Agriscience, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the United States Department of Agriculture, McDonald’s and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The annual award highlights the nation’s finest cattle farmers and ranchers who serve as leaders and models for good stewardship practices. There have been nearly 202 regional operations in 39 different states recognized through the program. The judges base their choices on the nominee’s management of water, wildlife, vegetation, air and soil, along with leadership abilities and the sustainability of the business.
In addition to rewarding environmental stewardship, the program also provides fellow farmers and ranchers with concrete examples and proven ideas that can be useful to enhancing conservation efforts on their own farm and ranching operations.
A notable example is Smith Creek Ranch in Austin, Nevada, who received the Environmental Stewardship Award in 2016. The 230,000 acre ranch provides important habitat for Lahontan cutthroat trout and sage grouse, in addition to providing habitat for migrating waterfowl and a variety of other wildlife. The ranch’s stewardship efforts have included restoring creek beds and undertaking extensive monitoring to demonstrate the compatibility of livestock with wildlife through practices that reduce habitat loss and degradation. The Smith Creek Ranch continues to implement practices that not only benefit the livestock, but the native sagebrush landscape, highlighting their commitment to leave the land better than they found it.
“The Hendrix family has a tremendous value for the land and they’re excited to see that land flourish and become even more productive because of the efforts here on the ranch.” – Sam Lossing, Smith Creek Ranch Manager
CONSERVATION IS NEVER COMPLETE
Everything on Earth requires the use of natural resources like land, energy and water—it’s what we do with those resources that is most important. Today, beef is produced using fewer resources than ever before.
But conservation is never complete; farmers and ranchers will continue to work hard to feed a growing population, while, at the same time, working to reduce water use, care for the land, and protect the environment.
Learn more about farmers and rancher’s dedication to the environment in the 2017 Cattlemen’s Stewardship Review
- USDA. 2017. https://www.usda.gov/foodlossandwaste/why
- Brunson, MW and L. Huntsinger. 2008. Ranching as a Conversation Strategy: Can Old Ranchers Save the New West? Rangeland Ecology & Management 61(2): 137-147.)
- Masek, et al. 2011. Recent rates of forest harvest and conversion in North America. JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH, VOL. 116. https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_2011_masek_j001.pdf
- Cameron et al. 2014. Evaluating Ecosystem Services. CA Rangeland Trust. https://rangelandtrust.org/ecosystem-service-study/
- Taylor, DT, et al. 2019. National and State Economic Values of Cattle Ranching and Farming Based Ecosystem Services in the U.S. University of Wyoming Extension B-1338.
- Loy et al. 2017. Water Quality & Beef Sustainability. Found on: https://www.beefresearch.org/Media/BeefResearch/Docs/water-quality-and-beef-sustainability-executive-summary_11-28-2020-75.pdf
- National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. 2017. 2017 Cattlemen’s Stewardship Review. Found on https://www.beefboard.org/2018/05/14/2017-cattlemens-stewardship-review/.
- NASS. 2019. https://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Wisconsin/Publications/Crops/2020/WI-Potatoes-09-20.pdf
- Fadel, J.G. Anim. Feed Sci. Technol. 79:255-268; CAST, 1999
- Rotz et al. 2019. Ag Systems. 169 (Feb.): 1-13.
- Gold, M.A. and J.W. Hanover. 1987. Agroforestry systems for the temperate zone. Agroforestry Systems 5:109-121
- Rao, Devii. 2020. Benefits of cattle grazing for reducing fire fuels and hazard. Berkeley Rausser. Found on https://nature.berkeley.edu/news/2020/09/benefits-cattle-grazing-reducing-fire-fuels-and-fire-hazard.
- Wiedinmyer, Christine and Jason Neff. 2007. Estimates of CO2 from fires in the United States: Implications or carbon management. Carbon Balance Manag. 2:10. doi: 10.1186/1750-0680-2-10.
For more posts like this, in your inbox weekly – sign up for the Restoring Diversity Newsletter