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06.07.2022

This is What Sustainability Looks Like

Meatingplace July
Last month I had the opportunity to attend the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) General Assembly meeting. The day before the meeting, a group of attendees boarded a bus at dawn for a sustainable ag tour. I always jump at the chance to see agriculture in different parts of the country, this time in South Carolina. This tour was of particular interest to me because it was on the heels of my spending a week in Southwest Kansas, driving a tractor and preparing ground for planting corn on my family’s farm.

The area of Kansas I call home is (at the time of this writing) in extreme drought – D3 – according to the Drought Monitor. In South Carolina everything was lush and green!

One of our stops was Yon Family Farms in Ridge Springs, South Carolina. It was spectacular! The Yon family focuses on the very beginning of the beef supply chain: They are in the seedstock business, raising purebred Angus cattle to grow up to be the mama cows and bulls at other farms and ranches. It was a gorgeous day, with beautiful mama cows and their calves grazing on beautiful grass. It was the idyllic picture of the beef industry — the very image consumers paint in their own minds and one we in marketing like to reinforce because it best aligns with how consumers see the industry. This image gives consumers the warm fuzzies when it comes to their number one concern associated with sustainability, according to Midan’s recent research: animal well-being. Of course, it’s easy for a pretty photo like the one above to convey that the cattle are well cared for.

Creating and maintaining this ideal picture is all about the grass. The Yon family does not shy away from the fact that they are more grass farmers than cattle producers. They know that in order to be good at raising cattle, you have to be excellent at raising grass.

And for the beef industry, this is the very heart of our sustainability story. Those frustrated by the beef industry are quick to point out that the cow/calf sector is responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions, but that beautiful green grass is an input that helps create a much more valuable product that can then fertilize the very land the grass was eaten on to repeat the carbon cycle.

cows eat sorghum
But let’s be real. The definition of sustainability is much broader than just gorgeous grass turned into fertilizer and beef. Sustainability also looks like this: A commercial cow herd serving as the recycling team, munching on sorghum stocks in the drought-stricken area of Kansas I call home. These cows and calves are also well cared for and getting a great diet based on remaining grain and the stalks. Not as pretty as lush green grass, I admit, but equally as important in telling the sustainability story.

Sustainability can also look like this: Cattle in Washington state, doing a better job than a weed whacker, grazing under tall trees that shade them while they eat down the brush, gaining value nutrients with the added bonus of helping with fire management. (Side note: follow beef_maker on TikTok, he does a great job sharing his ranching story!)

tweet from beef_maker
Sustainability is going to look different depending on what part of the country you are in. It is going to be managed differently depending on whether you get an average of 46” of rain like Yon Family Farms does in South Carolina or 22” like my family does in Kansas (though far, far less so far this year). We need to help consumers understand that sustainability is not “one size fits all” in practice.

Regardless of the location, consumers’ number one concern is the well-being of the animal (see my previous blog post on this topic). As we ramp up the sustainability conversations that are sure to follow USRSB’s newly set goals and metrics, we must begin with an assurance to consumers that the cattle – whether in a lush South Carolina pasture, a drought-affected sorghum field in Kansas or a shady forest in Washington state – are well cared for. Once they know that, the rest of the sustainability conversation will become easier.

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