October 16, 2021

Cattle upcycle forages into beef that is packed with nutrients

DENVER — Sustainable beef production provides cattlemen the opportunity to produce beef for many future generations.

“With sustainable beef production in the U.S., we’ve been able to produce more beef while reducing our herd over the last 60 years,” said Jessica Gilreath, postdoctoral research associate at Texas A&M University.

“With improvements since 1996, we’ve seen U.S. beef production have the lowest greenhouse gas emission intensity,” said Gilreath during the “Can beef be sustainable? Cattle’s role in the climate solution” webinar hosted by the Beef Checkoff in partnership with Climate Week NYC 2021. “This is the result of our industry’s continued sustainability efforts and improved resource use.”

According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, Gilreath said, beef cattle are only responsible for 2% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

“Compare that to transportation or electricity use at around 25% to 29% of the greenhouse gas emission in the U.S.,” Gilreath said.

“Cattle live on grasslands and those grasslands are helping us through carbon sequestration — removing and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere,” she said.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is very different from carbon dioxide, Gilreath said.

“When cattle consume forages they ferment them in order to digest them, utilize that as energy and through that process they belch methane that gets entered into the atmosphere,” she said.

This process is part of a natural cycle called the biogenic carbon cycle, Gilreath said.

“The cattle consume forage, produce methane which gets admitted to the atmosphere,” she said. “During the process of the methane getting broken down in the atmosphere, plants can consume the carbon dioxide, the cattle consume the forages and the cycle keeps going over and over.”

The big difference between methane and carbon dioxide, Gilreath said, is methane only stays in the atmosphere for nine to 12 years.

“If we admit carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds and hundreds of years,” she said.

On The Land

“Sustainability for me is very personal because it means my family will be able to sustain our business on this piece of land for many generations to come,” said Jen Johnson Livsey, cattle producer at Flying Diamond Ranch, Kit Carson, Colorado.

It’s really based on the land, Livsey said.

“We believe if we do a good job, grazing cattle improves our grassland asset,” Livsey said.

“Grasslands are an amazing ecosystem that evolved with ruminant animals,” she said. “Cattle interacting with grasses are needed to maintain a healthy watershed, the carbon sink and to act as a wildlife habitat.”

Cattle impact grasslands with their hoof action, as well as cycling their manure back into the soil.

“If we removed cattle from these millions of acres, that would over time degrade the landscape because cattle are necessary to maintain the healthy cycle on grasslands,” Livsey said.

Rotational grazing has been utilized on the Colorado ranch for the last three decades.

“We mimic how large herds of bison moved through a landscape,” Livsey said. “The cattle graze on a small space of land for a couple of days and then move on and we rest the land for almost a year.”

The rest period allows the grasslands to recover and grow more forage.

“While it is doing that, the grasslands are providing wildlife habitat, acting as a catch for water and increasing soil health,” Livsey said. “We benefit because we can run more cattle on the same amount of ground and the environment benefits because it makes it a thriving ecosystem.”

The Colorado cattle producers match the calving season to the greatest period of forage growth.

“We like to be dictated by nature,” Livsey said. “That will vary depending on where you are in the nation — there are a lot of different environments where there are cattle in the U.S. and ranchers are doing intriguing practices all over that fit their specific environment.”

Flying Diamond Ranch recently received a certification from the Audubon Society.

“They reviewed us for how healthy our ranch is for birds and other wildlife,” Livsey said. “We are one of a few ranches that is certified, which tells us someone thinks we’re doing a good job.”

On The Plate

“In terms of a nutritious diet, sustainability means a lot to me,” said Nicole Rodriguez, registered dietitian in New York. “Beef cattle do something really special, they take plants that are inedible to humans and upcycle them into a delicious protein that’s also packed with zinc, iron, B vitamins and a host of other nutrients.”

It is really difficult to beat the nutrient density that beef provides in a small caloric package, Rodriguez said.

“Beef provides a lot of nutrients that people are deficient in — mainly iron and it is one of the most bio-available sources of that,” Rodriguez said.

“As a nutritionist, I want to be a pencil for people and not an eraser,” she said. “I want to talk about what you can add to your diet to make it nutrient dense, not what you love that I can take away and beef is not only super nutrient dense, it’s delicious.”

For more information about the Beef Checkoff, go to www.beefboard.org.

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor