Cattle Ranching Gives Back to the Land
Produce more beef with a better environmental “hoofprint”? You bet!
Cattle ranchers are raising more beef for more people while using fewer resources. How? By returning to nature’s own best practices and leveraging the latest science.
Global meat demand is projected to surge by 2050 due to population growth. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) and its partners around the world strive to meet this demand for high quality protein while optimizing the sustainable use of earth’s limited natural resources.
Canadian beef producers are justifiably proud of their record: Canadian beef has one of the lowest greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints per unit in the world at 11.4 kg CO2s (carbon dioxide equivalents) per kilogram of live weight.
This is less than half of the world average carbon intensity for beef production. While contributing $33 billion to the Canadian economy, the beef industry accounts for only 2.4 per cent of the country’s GHG emissions, a stark contrast to the transportation sector, which accounts for 28 per cent of emissions.
Yet, Canadian ranchers didn’t achieve this top performance by accident or overnight. This stems from decades of progress in how ranchers steward their lands and herds.
Evolution of ranchland sustainability
Canada celebrated its first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. The day and the environmental movement gradually gained recognition as activists, song writers and others reacted to books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and studies emerging from scientists.
The CCA created its own Environmental Committee in the early 1990s in response to information coming from the US highlighting a need to take care of riparian areas (vegetation surrounding small bodies of water like pond, creeks and rivers). Prior to this, ranchers often allowed their cattle direct access to drinking water, and sometimes riparian areas suffered. Unfettered grazing of these sensitive areas left the land susceptible to soil erosion, which led to poor quality water. When cattle impacted this valuable scrub, soil erosion also contributed to ponds drying up and disturbed the water table under pasture lands.
The Environmental Committee comprises eight to nine producers, a representative from the Young Cattlemen’s Council and Larry Thomas, CCA’s Manager of Environment and Sustainability. Their work encourages environmentally sustainable production practices, advocates for appropriate government policies and communicates with consumers to demonstrate how beef cattle producers are responsible custodians of the natural resources they manage.
Partnering on conservation initiatives
Despite these early efforts, CCA was not always considered a partner by conservation groups. Their relationships were sometimes at odds, but both camps soon realized they needed to work together for the long-term sustainability of Canada’s valuable grasslands. That has evolved in the past decade, says CCA Environment Committee Chair Duane Thompson, who notes CCA now collaborates and communicates with groups such as Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Nature Conservancy.
“Now when there’s an issue, we join forces,” says Thompson. “Ranchers own or manage 68% of wildlife habitat and they want that land to stay healthy and productive for their cattle.”
“We are the ultimate conservationists and we have found that adopting best practices is not only good for the environment but also for our businesses.”
Take water for example. When ranchers install watering systems like off-water troughs or tanker systems like Thompson uses, their cattle opt to drink from these sources instead of the nearby stream because it is both cleaner and more convenient. Animal health improves as well, as livestock avoid contracting hoof rot from slogging around in marshes or on muddy shorelines.
Ranchers now often plant foliage like willow shoots beside water bodies with little vegetation; a low-cost solution to soil erosion.
Mimicking natural cycles
“The natural prairie grasses need to be grazed to keep them healthy,” explains Thompson. “The original grazers were bison – they would munch a wide swath of land to the ground and then move on. When the bison were nearly eradicated, the soil and grasslands suffered. Though long, rippling grass may appear to be healthy, it’s not. It begins to thatch, preventing the natural nutrient cycling through grazing that keeps the system alive.”
Thompson illustrates with an example: Grasslands National Park excluded grazing for several years and the native grasses were left long. Ten years later, the biodiversity had suffered and the thatch build-up was a big issue. A rancher whose land adjoined the park raised cattle and had nutrient-rich grass. The solution? Reintroduce strategic rotational cattle grazing back into the park. It worked.
This doesn’t just work in North America. Thompson witnessed this natural progression of wildlife giving back to the land through grazing when he was in the Serengeti in Africa in February 2020.
“While the others in my party were gazing in awe at the wildlife, I was looking at the soil and the forage, legumes and grass it supports. I saw how the wildebeest and zebras kept the land healthy by grazing. We can mimic that process with cattle on our ranches.”
Thompson recounts how, in the 1930’s, the near-extinction of bison combined with older farming practices like plowing the ground and removing vegetation was compounded by long lasting drought, all of which ultimately led to the loss of much of the fertile top soil from the Prairies during the Depression.
“The soil blew away and the ground was totally exposed to the sun,” Thompson explains. “It was similar to us getting a sunburn or leathery skin from too much exposure. If the land is managed right using regenerative sustainable practices and technology, this should never happen again.”
Today, cattle have largely replaced bison and they are mimicking the historic role of a keystone grazing species with the help of their owners. Cycling cattle between both tame and natural pastures allows the grass to be “mown” and come back healthy. Cattle manure returns organic matter and nutrients to the soil.
The physical hoof action of cattle benefits the land by sparking deeper root systems and improving water filtration. Cattle can also thrive on land that is unsuited to crops like sandy lands, marshes or rocky outcroppings, enriching poor soil. Of the 68 million hectares of land classified as agricultural in Canada, approximately 30% is not economically suitable for cultivation but can support livestock. Learn more here.
Canadian grasslands under the care of ranchers conservatively store over 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon, sequestering the equivalent of 3.6 million cars worth of carbon emissions each year on the Prairies alone
Beyond carbon sequestration, best practices in grassland management contribute to improved water filtration and biodiversity. This supports microscopic organisms in soil like protozoa and fungi, and larger organisms like the native vegetation that feeds and shelters wildlife such as antelope and deer.
To keep it that way, CCA sat on the Canada’s Species at Risk advisory committee and continues to work with conservation groups to help reduce the risk status of several species, like the swift fox. The CCA also supports best practices such as barbless fencing in open areas where antelope run free. (Deer that will leap over a fence, but the much smaller antelope will try going under. When the wires are barbed, antelope can cut their skin, risking infection.)
So yes, there are ecosystem benefits. Yet some environmentalists worry about the methane cattle produce.
Methane is expelled when cattle belch, a necessary part of their complex digestive system. Methane is considered a short-lived greenhouse gas (GHG). The CCA and its member ranchers are working to reduce the amount of methane cows produce by implementing new and evolving science-driven approaches, which include improved feed management and breeding selection and efficiency that cut down emissions by enabling the farmer to produce the same amount of beef from fewer cows.
Food waste is another target for the CCA, which strives to reduce methane by 50% by 2030 by processing waste from cattle feed that would otherwise rot. “Think about it,” says Thompson. “If food waste is left to decompose on its own, it will also give off methane.”
Environmental practices pay off
When asked whether environmental practices add costs for the ranchers, Thompson concedes it involves investment, but it pays off.
“There are some upfront costs, but things like rotational grazing and water systems soon turn a profit. The result is a healthy business financially and environmental sustainability.”
Labour sustainability is another matter. The big challenge is dwindling labour. While 30 to 40 years ago, farmers and ranchers were able to hire locally, today there are fewer and fewer people to hire. As Thompson enters his busiest six weeks of the year from late April to early June, he worries about having enough hired hands to plant forage crops, help with calving (birthing, branding, tagging) and care for 1,300 head of cattle.
Even still, ranching is in his blood. Thompson’s children are the fifth generation on the farm, Tee Two Land and Cattle Company, located near Kelliher Saskatchewan. The upcoming birth of two grandchildren this year will mark the sixth generation.
“I am proud of what I do and what other cattle ranchers do to protect the environment,” Thompson affirms. “Because of the sustainability of our system, no one should feel guilty about consuming or producing red meat.”
“We play a critical role providing protein for a hungry world and as conservationists, stewards of the land. It’s all part of the circle of life.”
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.