What does sustainability mean in the real world?
Sara (Van Newkirk) Cover, who recently accepted a position with Greater Omaha Packing Company, an independent beef packing business in Omaha, Nebraska, said her company focuses on producing a high quality product, which means they buy cattle that grade and have performed in the feedlot.
“Sustainability is a buzzword right now. Greater Omaha is taking it seriously,” she said.
New equipment at the plant helps reduce water usage by capturing steam from their boilers to preheat their water, for example.
“We have been asked how our suppliers are sustainable. Our response is, ‘we do business with smaller farmer feeders. They are using their own crops grown on the farm. Their feed isn’t being hauled long distances. They are spreading the manure back on their fields,’” she said.
“We know the consumer isn’t as informed about that so our goal is to start sharing the story of our suppliers, not making them change anything,” she said. Cover said consumer data is “all over the board” when it comes to sustainability. “They don’t really know what it means. There is a lot of information out there. The data we have seen is focused on humane handling of animals. We feel our producers do an excellent job with that now, we don’t see it as a major area of concern, we just need to communicate the practices we are currently doing in the industry. Secondly, they want to know about environmental impact, and that’s something we’re constantly working on,” she said.
“I think ag in general isn’t given enough credit for how much further ahead on sustainability we are than some other industries. That’s really one of my jobs, is to start sharing our sustainability stories to our customers,” she said.
“Our producers are really efficient – they wouldn’t be in business if they weren’t. Our goal is to partner with them, not change their practices” she said. Cover said she hopes to build relationships with the cow-calf producers who are raising the cattle that wind up in local feedlots before being transported to Greater Omaha. Cover grew up on the Van Newkirk Hereford ranch near Oshkosh, Nebraska, so the cow-calf sector is not new to her.
“We pride ourselves on having good relationships with our suppliers,” she said. “About 75-80 percent of our buy is on the cash market. I think feeders really appreciate that we are in the market every week. We have been known for that.” she said.
Cover said she’s working with UNL researchers to learn more about the cattle industry’s methane output, carbon impacts, and more.
Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, the director of AgNext at Colorado State University shared the 3 pillars of sustainability that she focuses on: social, financial and environmental impacts.
Stackhouse-Lawson who was JBS USA’s director of sustainability, said the industry needs to establish some individual baseline data so producers know what their current environmental impact is, and then learn how to make improvements. The cost of implementing a mitigation strategy could be offset by a premium program, she said. Because cattle operations across the country are so diverse, there is not a “one-size fits all” solution to the sustainability question, she said.
“AgNext is a leader for research in animal and ecosystem health while enhancing profitability of the supply chain and serves as the crossroads for producers, industry partners, and researchers to come together to innovate real time solutions for sustainability in animal agriculture,” said Stackhouse-Lawson.
AgNext is partnered with Fiver Rivers, LeValley Ranches, Farm Credit Services of America, Safeway/Albertsons, Rabobank, Beef Marketing Group, and several others.
“When I get asked from a producer, ‘how or where do I start?’ I tell them, efficiency metrics are the most important things we can track to demonstrate sustainability.” She believes ranchers need to make record of what she calls “proof points” in order to establish a baseline for their operation and then focus on “continual improvement.”
Stackhouse-Lawson suggests tracking data on fertility rates, weaning and calving rates, daily gain of feeders, etc. She also suggested producers develop or put on paper a grazing management plan that would demonstrate responsible production standards.
Data collection helps producers make more informed decisions, she said. Although few incentive programs exist for this kind of effort today, she urges producers to make the effort because they will also help the producer with his or her operation.
“Farmers and ranchers have been sustainable for a long time by focusing on efficiencies and high quality land management, so we need to continue to be focused on that and be able to continue to improve,” she said. “If we measure and quantify those things, we should be able to make better decisions going forward,” she said.
Could small or independent producers be at a disadvantage if and when restrictive policies are implemented in the US? “There are a number of corporate, environmental, and social sustainability commitments that have really ramped u over time. Those corporate commitments could have lasting impacts on the food system we know today,” she said. “We need to do a better job of understanding how best the implementation of those commitments could transform our food supply chain and make sure we are informing that transformation with other important sustainability outcomes.”
Stackhouse-Lawson said recent research projects produce accurate information when it comes to the cattle industry’s impact on the climate. But sometimes researchers can’t measure data in real world scenarios. For example, measuring actual methane emissions of cattle in a pasture or even feedlot setting has been very difficult. “We’re getting pretty close, and yet I’d say data is only going to improve,” she said. “I’m confident the data we have is accurate.”
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