A major science-based sustainability study detailing the environmental impact footprint of the US beef industry is the latest weapon being used by US producers to defend their industry’s performance in the face of changing community expectations.
In Brisbane yesterday as part of the Five Nations Beef Alliance conference being hosted by Cattle Council of Australia was the president of the US National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Scott George, a beef cow/calf producer from Wyoming.
The NCBA operates in a similar fashion as CCA, representing the interests of 1.1 million beef producers across the US.
Spend ten minutes with Mr George and it becomes immediately apparent that many of the challenges faced by the production sector in Australia have a direct parallel in the US.
Regulatory burdens, the industry’s perception within the broader community, herd rebuilding and adopting a science-based approach to trade access were among industry issues he highlighted during a brief discussion with Beef Central over dinner last night.
“Right now, US cattle numbers are at their lowest point in 60 years,” Mr George said.
“As a result, we’re doing whatever we can to try to stimulate interest in herd rebuilding. All the economics suggest it is time to rebuild the herd, but drought this year and last has put a dampener on that, raising the price of feed and pushing more cows to market,” he said.
“But just in the last few months, we’re seeing more signs of heifer retention, which is a good indicator of a start to a rebuilding process.”
While the weather patterns had now moderated, Mr George agreed that a fundamental change was probably taking place in the US beef herd that would make it hard, if not impossible, to ever return to beef herd sizes seen even three or four years ago.
“We’d like to see breeding cow numbers grow, but there’s such a demand for beef in the US right now – both domestically and for export – that financially, it remains very attractive to sell females for slaughter, rather than to breed from next year. That remains a significant challenge.”
Part of the solution was in putting foundations in place to give cow/calf operators greater confidence in the industry, going forward.
Echoing sentiments often expressed in Australia, Mr George said, “We need good policy from our Governments; we need good trade agreements across the world; and we need better community understanding about the beef industry. They’re just some of the reasons we’re gathering for this Five Nations conference – we share a host of common challenges and goals in areas like these,” he said.
“Sure, we’re often competitors in the global marketplace, but if we can come to terms on issues like a science-based approach to international trade, removing the big list of artificial trade barriers that exist, then it opens the doors for everybody.”
Heavy-handed, inappropriate government regulation was an industry burden in the US, just as it is in Australia, it seems.
“Some US Government agencies want to impose regulatory restrictions that we consider unnecessary and misguided, and they are costing our industry a lot of money,” Mr George said.
He used the example of recent policy development by the US Environmental Protection Agency, in the area of dust suppression.
“They suddenly decided they wanted to tighten the dust pollution standards across the US. If it had been adopted, beef producers would have been violating the legislation simply by driving a pickup down a dirt road. Harvesting grain using a combine would also have been in violation of the regulations, and when we asked how we were supposed to harvest our crop, their response was to do it at night. At no point did they contemplate that moisture levels at night make it impossible.”
“We’re all in favour of clean water and clean air, but we have some real frustrations with our government.”
Empowering the industry integrity story
The US beef industry’s engagement with consumers and the broader community was an increasingly large part of NCBA’s work, and from an Australian perspective, many of its strategies and achievements look impressive.
“Some US consumers are concerned about animal welfare and handling, and environmental issues, just as they appear to be in Australia,” Mr George said. “It’s an area that NCBA is working very hard in, developing a three-pronged approach.”
“Firstly, we’re putting a lot of resources into encouraging beef producers to become more engaged, to start opening their doors and letting the broader community see what we do.”
A producer training/education program called “Masters of Beef Advocacy” has been developed, to provide those producers who are keen to engage with social media critics and the broader community with skills to better defend the industry’s performance.
The on-line learning program, comprising six one-hour course modules covering key areas like animal handling, welfare and beef’s role in a balanced diet, lead producers to an ‘MBA’ which equips them to advocate more effectively on behalf of the beef industry.
More than 4000 US producers have now ‘graduated’ from the MBA program, and numbers continue to grow.
A second part of NCBA’s approach to community engagement and education is an extensive outreach program, being driven through retailers (in the US, predominantly supermarkets) and food service/restaurant operators.
“We’re literally taking them to our farms and ranches and educating them about what we do. When a consumer has a concern, the first person they hit is the person in the restaurant or supermarket: it’s often not the producer. So if we can help them to be better equipped to answer customer questions, and to have a balanced understanding of how the beef industry operates, we’re gaining an advantage,” Mr George said.
The third part of NCBA’s approach to consumer attitudes is the recent completion of a major beef sustainability study, looking into the lifecycle of US beef production.
The comprehensive, independent, science-based study, looking into a range of ‘input and output’ attributes including carbon and methane emissions, water use and other topics, had come out ‘very positive’ in terms of the industry’s credentials, Mr George said.
“It clearly shows we have literally been reducing our utilisation of water, feed, soil and land – producing more and more beef with less greenhouse gasses,” he said. “It’s a very positive story.”
The lifecycle assessment study has now been peer-reviewed, and is being released in full form in the US this week. It identified substantial declines in GHG emissions, water use, and resource consumption and energy use, as part of a sustainability improvement of 5 percent from 2005 to 2011.
The project was initiated by US cattle producers themselves and coordinated by NCBA, using US Checkoff program funds.
About US$2 million had been spent on the project thus far, and it was anticipated that more would need to be spent as time goes by, Mr George said.
“We’ve now found out where we are now, and where we’ve been in the past, but we’re also going to have to look at the further positive changes in future,” he said.
“It’s all about having some valid, reliable scientific information that the industry can hang its hat on.”
Australia’s traceability impresses
Earlier yesterday, the Five Nations Beef Alliance group visited the weekly Roma store sale, watching a big yarding of 9300 head including large lines of drought-impacted cattle from western Queensland being sold.
Mr George came away ‘highly impressed’ with the application of Australia’s NLIS traceability system he saw operating in the yards.
“We watched as the cattle were efficiently and quickly read through the yards, and the sign saying, no tag, no movement, no sale.”
“It’s a phenomenal accomplishment for your country,” he said.
He said the US was getting closer to its own national individual animal identification system, but it remained a “real challenge.”
“Many US producers are very protective of their information, and don’t like the idea of authorities knowing how many cows they have. But while there are efforts to move towards a national animal ID program right now, it is unlikely to ever be mandatory, like it is in Australia.”
“It is more about disease traceback, but eventually hopefully a model will emerge. At this stage it is driven primarily by brand programs. NCBA is in favour of moving towards a national ID program, simply because consumers, generally, desire to see greater traceability on what they eat – as well as the disease traceback aspect.”
- The Five Nations Beef Alliance involves production sector representatives from Australia, the US, Canada, Mexico and New Zealand. See Beef Central’s earlier item on the conference here.