Generation Z (ages 9-24) and Generation Alpha (under 12) are growing quickly and shaping social movements, pop culture, and purchasing habits. It’s important to reach this generation of the next decision-makers early and share with them on the importance of including beef in a healthy, sustainable diet. To do this, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, has developed resources and partnered with leading media among youth. This work has so far included developing games, videos, and graphics on the Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner kids sustainability page, plus print and digital articles and interactive quizzes with Scout Life, The Week Jr., Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids, Popsugar, and Thrillist.
Three ranchers share their sustainability practices in celebration of Earth Day
Denver, CO (April 21, 2022) – The U.S. is home to some of the most beautiful land in the world along with beef farmers and ranchers who have spent decades dedicating their work to preserving it. Because of their dedication, the U.S. produces the most sustainable beef in the world.
In honor of Earth Day, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, is sharing the stories of three ranchers who represent the thousands of cattle producers across the country who implement sustainable practices every day.
While water may be scarce in the deserts of Southern Arizona, conservation efforts are flourishing thanks to cattle rancher Dean Fish. As Ranch Manager for the Santa Fe Ranch Foundation in Nogales, Fish isn’t a stranger to finding innovative ways to discover, retain and distribute clean water effectively and sustainably.
Being sustainable runs in the family as Fish’s father, Ron Fish, was first to implement the changes to the ranch’s concrete open ditch irrigation system. In its place, Fish’s father installed an underground pipe with valves designed to direct water exactly where it needs to go more effectively and with less evaporation or leakage.
The ranch also utilizes windmills and solar pumps to provide water, not just for livestock, but to additional wildlife species in the area.
Thanks to the sustainable and innovative practices, a once desolate piece of land is now home to a successful cattle ranch. And Fish is not alone as he has educated hundreds of other ranchers on conservation practices to help them be successful in raising cattle and caring for natural resources.
While these three ranchers live in different areas of the country with very different resources and challenges, they share a common goal of producing high-quality protein and conserving their local environments.
“I enjoy the opportunity to educate others coming into the area on what land conservation in Florida looks like,” said Jim Strickland. “It’s important to make the connection of how cattle ranching protects our wildlife. There’s a lot to look out for and we’re improving every day.”
“When you’re sitting back watching television shows based in Montana and think ‘Wow, it’s so beautiful’ most of what you see is someone’s private farm or ranch,” said Jake Feddes. “We’ve gotten more efficient and have been able to raise more cattle on the same amount of land as we did decades ago, and the scenery here tells part of that story.”
“It’s all about preserving the wildlife and natural resources,” said Dean Fish. “Here in southeast Arizona, it’s too hot to farm fruits or vegetables on this land so a sustainable cow-calf operation is a great way to use the landscape.”
The cattle business comes as second nature for sixth-generation rancher Jim Strickland. As owner of Strickland Ranch and managing partner of Blackbeard’s Ranch in Manatee County, Florida, he’s dedicated his life’s work to conserving the land, waterways, and surrounding habitat of the Myakka River Valley. In 2019 Blackbeard’s Ranch was recognized with the national Environmental Stewardship Award for that work.
With thousands of new residents moving to the area every day, Strickland saw the opportunity to educate newcomers on the importance of ranch lands. Not only that, but he also led the effort to designate one-third of Blackbeard’s Ranch into a permanent conservation easement, making it so that land stays untouched by development and continues to restore and protect native waterways.
In addition to preserving open space and natural resources, Strickland utilizes wind and solar energy to provide cattle with clean water and execute an effective rotational grazing plan. Strickland has also initiated mini damns across thousands of acres and miles of creeks to hydrate and store more water on the ranch, helping the water quality before it reaches the oceans surrounding Florida.
As if it weren’t already clear that Earth Day is near and dear to Strickland’s heart, it’s also his birthday.
Picturesque views and a hub for tourism are a few words you could use to describe the north end of Yellowstone National Park, but to cattle rancher Jake Feddes it’s home. Feddes is a third-generation cattle rancher who, along with his father, runs Feddes Red Angus in the Gallatin Valley. In addition to selling high-quality beef, the Feddes family is known for their efforts to promote healthy soil. For example, they develop and follow a grazing plan to ensure cattle are constantly grazing on and fertilizing different areas of the land. Through this dedication to grazing and land management their cattle actually help improve overall soil health.
Like most of the west, water is a precious commodity at Feddes Red Angus. That’s why Feddes and his family grow cover crops to help retain moisture in the soil and prevent erosion. When they’re not growing hay, they’re growing other perennial forage plants that cattle can graze on. Not only does this help with moisture, it helps to preserve the area’s natural landscape.
Tourists that visit the Gallatin Valley come to appreciate the outdoors and mountain views but leave knowing a little more about how proper conservation practices keep it looking beautiful and serving a greater purpose.
About the Beef Checkoff
The Beef Checkoff Program was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. The Checkoff assesses $1 per head on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to a comparable assessment on imported beef and beef products. States may retain up to 50 cents on the dollar and forward the other 50 cents per head to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, which administers the national checkoff program, subject to USDA approval.
About NCBA, a Contractor to the Beef Checkoff
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is a contractor to the Beef Checkoff Program. The Beef Checkoff Program is administered by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, with oversight provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Not only is beef delicious and nutritious, but it’s also a highly sustainable food source. Numerous proven sustainability practices are utilized throughout each and every step of the “pasture-to-plate” process that contribute to the way beef is responsibly raised today.
Though the path to sustainability is never complete. It is a continuous journey being carried out by farmers and ranchers responsible for raising and supplying beef to the U.S. and across the world. To the beef community, sustainability comprises much more than environmental considerations. Today, a sustainable food supply balances efficient production with environmental, social and economic impacts.
THREE PILLARS OF SUSTAINABILITY
A sustainable food system is comprised of three different, but intersecting, pillars: social responsibility, economic viability and environmental stewardship. True sustainability is a balance of these three aspects. Beef farmers and ranchers are dedicated to producing beef in a way that prioritizes the planet, people, animals, and progress.
Perhaps the least explored of the three pillars is social sustainability. We define this as community and organizational resilience, based on principles such as equity, health, social capital, and well-being. For beef production, social sustainability includes worker safety, animal welfare, antibiotic and technology use, and the culture and traditions of beef producers.
The economic pillar of sustainability refers to practices that support economic success and equitability, without negatively impacting the social and environmental aspects of the community. This includes improving rural economies & livelihoods, affordability of beef to consumers, profitability of beef producers, and the value of ecosystem services. Beef farms and ranches represent over 30% of the farms in the U.S., making up the single largest segment of U.S. agriculture, and a significant component of the agricultural economy.1
This area is concerned with protecting and enhancing natural resources, ecosystem services, and ecological health. This pillar looks at biodiversity, carbon & water footprints, wildlife habitat, soil and rangeland health, and the ability of cattle to utilize human inedible feeds, among others.
Currently, emissions from cattle, including those that come from the feed production, fuel, and electricity only account for 3.7% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. To better understand and optimize environmental sustainability across the entire beef lifecycle, from pasture-to-plate, cattlemen and women have recently invested in an updated environmental life cycle assessment (LCA). This in-depth assessment utilizes the most up-to-date and comprehensive methodology and includes data from seven different regions across the country. The LCA provides benchmarks on environmental contributions of the cattle industry in the U.S., and is a roadmap for the journey toward an even more environmentally sustainable approach to raising beef.
An economic impact assessment for the beef industry is also being completed. This economic impact report is one way to measure economic sustainability of the beef industry and is an area that will continue to develop and progress given the significant social and economic contributions of the beef industry to the U.S. and global community.
SUSTAINABILITY THROUGH THE BEEF LIFECYCLE
Cattle spend the majority of their lives on pasture, from the time they are born to when they are sent to the feedlot. During this time in the their diet consists primarily of grass, forages, and occasionally crop residues from grain production. By grazing, cattle expand the land available for food production by being able to consume forages on non-arable lands that are unsuitable for agriculture.
After the cow calf and backgrounding stages, cattle may spend the last 4-6 months of their life in a feedlot, where 50-85% of their diet is composed of grain from corn and other by-products, like distillers grains. By grain-finishing cattle, it shortens the time it takes to get from birth to harvest, thereby lessening their environmental impact, while increasing the total amount of beef produced per animal.
The beef production system works in harmony to produce the most sustainable product, balancing all of the trade offs that come with it. Each sector of the supply chain plays a critical role in doing so. When grazing, cattle are able to utilize their unique ruminant digestive system to upcycle, turning human inedible products, like grass, into high quality protein for human consumption. In doing so, the beef production system is not only a net contributor (meaning the beef production system produces more protein than it consumes) to the human edible protein supply, but the quality of human edible protein produced is enhanced throughout the beef value chain. However, a trade-off of this upcycling superpower is that cattle produce methane during the digestive process. This trade-off is balanced by feedlots, where cattle are fed grain. The higher-energy, grain-based diet consumed there produces less methane emissions than a high-forage diet. However, the net protein contribution is relatively less compared to when cattle consume a forage based diet. Overall, when considering livestock’s net protein contribution, beef and dairy cattle have the highest contribution, followed by poultry and swine. It is important to consider all trade-offs when evaluating sustainability, as each component of the supply chain plays a unique and important role in healthy, sustainable beef production.2
- Baber, JR et al. 2018. Estimation of human-edible protein conversion efficiency, net protein contribution, and enteric methane production from beef production in the United States. Translational Animal Science 2(4): 439-450.
The setting sun over rugged, mountainous terrain, with a cowboy’s silhouette to finish the image is what many people visualize when they hear someone’s profession is a “rancher.” While that image may be true, ranching and raising beef is also a business. Just like running a grocery store, marketing firm, or other entities, successful ranchers follow the same rules. Raising beef involves a living animal and a lot of heart, but it is still a business.
Emmett and Lori Sturgill are ranchers who have built cattle raising businesses with the end goal of producing delicious, high-quality, and nutritious beef. Now, just because one of their goals is to make a profit, does not mean that they lack the passion for their work. They are lucky because this business is built on the work they love.
Emmett, retired law enforcement, comes from a long line of ranchers. His dad was a traditional cowboy and moved from cow camp to cow camp as the jobs came available. Lori, formally a successful real estate broker, comes from a farming background but animals were always a part of her life. Together, over the past 10 years, they have worked to build a successful ranching business. Purchasing the main ranch is a story about a good friend helping another good friend. That story ends many years later with Emmett purchasing the ranch from his good friends, the Neals, and their longtime friendship is just an added blessing. Emmett strongly believes he is where he is today because other people helped him get here.
Lori, who sights fellow Arizona rancher Chuck Backus and his educational cattle symposiums as a source of their success, helped turn their cattle business around. Emmett admits that before she came along, his ranch was what he called a “cowboy ranch” meaning he had a variety of breeds and the main goal was producing a calf each year from each cow. Lori came in, found a way to focus their efforts, and has helped to gradually shift the ranch to producing high-quality Angus beef for both the local, national and international markets.
Lori, having a previous career in real estate, knows business. She knows what is required to succeed and it means time, persistence, and paperwork. The Sturgills worked to mitigate risk by diversifying their cattle. They primarily raise Angus cows which are bred to registered bulls, mostly Red Angus, each year. The calves produced from this part of the ranch are considered “program cattle.” The Sturgill’s ranch and cattle are 3rd party verified through an audit process which ensures the cattle meet certain criteria to sell in various markets, are given certain vaccinations at specific times, are fed qualified feed at weaning, and weaned no less than 45 days. There are many other criteria that the Sturgills and their cattle meet to address the growing concerns of consumers today and be able to ship overseas to other countries. The cattle that are raised in this program enter the traditional beef lifecycle also referred to as the commercial market.
The Sturgills also keep a limited number of animals for use in their local community, providing natural beef to consumers. These animals are grass-fed and fill the demand of people looking to purchase directly from a rancher in and around Kingman, Arizona. There are many challenges with this business including limited processing facilities and the amount of time it takes to raise an animal to harvesting weight, but Lori finds this an integral part of the business, even now.
Finally, they also raise Corriente (another breed of cattle) steers for the sport of team roping. These animals are typically smaller in size with horns making them ideal for roping. These steers follow the same vaccination and health protocols as the rest of the herd to ensure longevity and wellness. This has provided customers with a healthy animal who can preform longer and thus led to many repeat customers.
On their ranches, Lori and Emmett are adamant about excellent cattle care. Their animals are all vaccinated and follow health protocol which were developed in conjunction with their veterinarian and also through their learnings from seminars like Beef Quality Assurance and other educational events. They also practice low stress cattle handling. This is a way of working with the animal’s flight zone to move them where you need them to go causing less stress on both the human doing the work and the animal. The goal with both priorities is to keep stress to a minimum to allow the animal to grow to its full potential. Lori also invented a unique way to deal with pests. Dairies often have rollers that scratch the animals’ backs, so Lori bought some of those but has taken them up a notch – adding fly and pest repellent. Not only is there not a fly in sight, but it is also one more way to reduce stress. No all-day flicking of the tail for these girls and boys!
Lori is proudly a self-proclaimed environmentalist, as most ranchers are. Her focus is on the care of their livestock and on the wildlife that coinhabits the range lands their cattle graze. It is tough to care for livestock and the land and not be concerned about the environment in which they live. She is a firm believer in balance to ensure the longevity of a ranch. She has begun to start planting trees at all of the watering areas to help keep the water cool for both her cattle and wildlife. This also keeps the drinkers (water troughs) cleaner as red algae doesn’t have the sun it needs to flourish when shade is present. The ranch is also part of many conservation programs, including increasing the population of pronghorn antelopes and working towards a reseeding program in the valley pasture on the ranch to reintroduce native grasses. The ranch management plan also includes proper rotation of the pastures to maintain the forage conditions with regular monitoring from the University of Arizona.
Lori and Emmett are firm believers that cattle take care of you if you take care of the cattle. The love the Sturgills have for their cattle, the land, and the people who buy their beef is evident in many ways. As we wrapped up our visit by the horse pens, with Lori scratching on one of her favorite colts, another family pulled in for a visit. Community is important and both Lori and Emmett embrace and nourish the relationships they have with fellow ranchers and town people, alike. Ultimately, this is a business, and a successful one at that, but it’s a business with heart.
This blog post is made possible by the generous support of the Arizona Cattle Industry Research and Education Foundation.
For Arizona’s ranching families, the land is not just where they raise cattle; it’s also where they raise their families. They have a personal stake in the quality of their environment – so they are always looking for new ways to improve the air, water and land on and near their property.
In fact, today’s cattlemen are significantly more environmentally sustainable than they were 30 years ago. A study by Washington State University in 2007 found that today’s farmers and ranchers raise 13% more beef from 30% fewer cattle. When compared with beef production in 1977, each pound of beef produced today:
- Produces 16% less carbon emissions
- Takes 33% less land
- Requires 12% less water
Arizonans rely on farming and ranching families to manage and maintain more than 26 million acres of land in Arizona. A healthy aspect of sustainable beef production involves grazing cattle on U.S. rangelands, about 85 percent of which are unsuitable for crops. Raising cattle on this land contributes to the ecosystems by converting forages humans cannot eat into a nutrient-rich food humans can eat — beef.
What do footballs, lipstick, charcoal, paint, and wallpaper have in common? They are all important items we use in our lives and they all come from cattle.
Wait, what? Yup, you heard us! Those items all contain an ingredient from cattle which we call a by-product. The main reason we raise cattle is for the delicious beef they produce. What is left over is called a byproduct. While the word byproduct might sound like something that isn’t useful, don’t let the word deceive you. These items are extremely important to many of the everyday items you use at home.
You can think of it as a recipe. Just like you have a recipe to make, let’s say, meatloaf, there is a recipe to make lipstick, or footballs, or paint. The recipe provides you the ingredient list and the steps to get you to the end product. The byproducts from beef are one of those ingredients on the list.
When we harvest a beef animal, about 60% of that animal becomes beef. The remaining 40% includes things like skin, fat, bones, tendons, organs, etc. Here is where byproducts become especially important. We can’t waste half an animal! But we can use those items in inventive and innovative ways to help make our lives easier.
An obvious byproduct is leather. It comes from the cow’s hide. Cowhides are an important part of most of America’s popular sports. One cowhide can make 12 basketballs OR 144 baseballs OR 20 footballs OR 18 volleyballs OR 18 soccer balls OR 12 baseball gloves.
Gelatin is another great example of a beef byproduct. It comes from connective tissue and is a staple ingredient in anything that jiggles or has that well known springy consistency. Hello Jello and gummy bears! Marshmallows and gum are two other products which contain gelatin.
It’s not just yummy products which contain cattle byproducts. Many important medical items also contain these useful items. Ointments for burns and first aid creams use byproducts as an ingredient along with extremely important antirejection drugs, which are used when someone has a heart, liver, or other organ transplants. The sticky part on bandages can be made from the fatty acid.
Other items which contain beef byproducts are insulin, dog food, rawhide bones, laundry pre-treatment, bone china, toilet paper (to make it soft), glue, dish soap, candles, film, crayons, paintbrushes, printing ink, nail polish remover, deodorants, antifreeze, hydraulic brake fluid, car wax, highways, tires, and so much more!
Add this to the list of reasons why cattle are amazing animals. They take sunlight which was used by plants we cannot eat and turn it into delicious and nutritious beef and all of these things we use to help make life easier. Thank goodness for cows!
I consider myself fortunate to have been raised in the farming and ranching community. Growing up, I’ve watched this group of people that grow and raise our country’s food do so with dedication and passion for the land they care for, the animals they are raising, and the people they are feeding.
My family runs an agritourism farm and cattle ranch called Mortimer Farms and Ranches in Dewey, Arizona. I get to call myself the Marketing Manager for our family’s farm which means I write blog posts, post lots of exciting news, events, and stories on our social media channels, design flyers, billboards, and signs, and handle all public relation topics. I also get to drive tractors, teach kiddos how to pick veggies, plant crops, take pictures, watch baby cows walk for the first time, and work cattle. I seriously have the best job ever! After I graduate from the University of Arizona in December, I hope to work for a non-profit agriculture organization in their marketing and public relations department as well as continuing to work on my family’s farm and ranch. Now let’s talk about the good stuff… cattle!
The past months have been the driest on record for many Northern areas of Arizona. Yavapai County, the area we call home, has received less than 30% of the normal rainfall this year. At one-point, homes in Prescott Valley were even asked to cut water usage, do laundry on scheduled days, and water their lawns and plants on others. The decrease in the rain doesn’t only affect homeowners. The drought has greatly impacted farmers, ranchers and can potentially affect our food supply.
Our farm and ranch are greatly affected by the drought. Our water pumping costs have gone up drastically and our cattle just about ran out of grass to eat.
I remember a Sunday afternoon not too long ago when we went out to check cows. Everything looked dead and the grass was just about all eaten down. It is at this point, in a normal year, we would move the cattle to the next pasture – a pasture filled with tall grasses, new growth, and a filled stock tank from which the cattle could drink. Unfortunately, mother nature foiled our plans and that next pasture, the one we had planned to move cattle to since the beginning of the year, had no water. The stock tank was dry. And the pasture which was next in the rotation for our cattle to graze didn’t look any better.
Due to the drought and lack of grass and water, we were forced to sell 95% of our calf crop from the last 2 years, move a 10,000-gallon portable water storage tank and trough system to the pasture with no water, buy an Army water truck, and found ourselves hauling water day in and day out to the cattle.
The Army water truck driving job was passed from one member of the family to the next. At one point my dad and I were driving down the road and we saw the big truck driving past us, but there was no driver to be seen. We soon realized Kolten, my little brother, was driving the truck and was just short enough that we couldn’t see him over the steering wheel.
It was a daily team effort hauling water and hay, pushing cows into new areas with more feed, and finding the baby calves that were left behind, usually in the dense brush.
I never had much time to plan if I am needed to help move these calves and I somehow always seem to be wearing shorts when I got the call. My job (with the help of my cattle dog – Stella) is to run through the thick bush and push the calves out and back with the herd. Now picture me running through, under, and jumping over dense, pokey, dead brush with shorts on. For weeks my legs looked like I was attacked by a feral cat.
Hauling water, hay, and moving cattle was only a short-term solution to a long-term problem. As each day passed, we watched the grass quality deteriorate and eventually get close to depletion in the pasture the cattle were grazing. Each pasture lasted less time and just when we moved the cattle into a new one it was time to move them somewhere else again. We either needed to figure out a way to provide food and water to our cattle in a more sustainable fashion or we needed to sell them.
My dad, Gary, is a big proponent of using the latest technology and practices in his job as a farmer and a rancher. The challenges the drought brought to our business were no different. He used technology and modern practices to combat the effects the drought had on our cattle and on the bottom line. We implemented a grazing technique, very uncommon in Arizona, called intensive grazing.
This practice puts cattle on small sections of land. The cattle eat all the forages in a short amount of time and then are moved to the next section. We decided to utilize the farmland we were going to grow hay on to implement this type of grazing. We began by planting and growing 30 acres of sorghum-sudangrass. We then, through trial and error, sectioned off one-acre areas by taking a small tractor diagonally across the field with the bucket of the tractor scraping the ground. The tractor pushes down the 15 feet tall grass to make room for a 2-strand temporary electric fence to be put up.
After this is done, it is time for the cattle to eat all this grass! 300 cattle are put on this one-acre section of farm-grown sorghum-sudangrass. The cattle enter the section and in one day the entire acre of 15-foot-tall grass is gone. It is like a buffet for cows! At this point, 15 minutes is taken to move the 2-strand electric fence to make a new one-acre section, the gate is opened, 300 cattle move into the next section, and the process starts all over again.
The cattle know the system now and wait by the gate as we move the fencing around. The whole herd of cattle runs into the next section and for a few hours disappear in the very tall grass. It is really is a site to see!
I asked my dad about the benefits of this type of grazing for the farm and the cattle.
Why did you decide to do this type of grazing, besides the drought impact?
We are able to grow a crop and not have to use labor, resources, or money to harvest this crop. If we had grown hay in these same fields we would have spent lots of resources cutting, baling, hauling, storing, and then ultimately feeding it to the same cattle that are eating it straight from the field now.
Is sorghum sudangrass good for the cattle?
Sorghum-sudangrass is a protein-rich grass for the cattle to eat. It also adds nutrients back into the soil.
Will you only use this grazing practice on sorghum sudangrass?
High-intensity grazing can be done in corn fields, sorghum-sudangrass fields, ditches, sorghum alfalfa blend fields, in native grass pastures, and pretty much everywhere else grasses and grains grow.
How does this gazing affect the farmland?
Intensive grazing not only combats the lack of range grasses my family’s ranch has but it also helps the farmland. Each crop grown in a field takes specific nutrients out of the field and puts specific nutrients back into the soil. Due to this, farmers rotate where they grow certain things (i.e. corn, pumpkin, grasses, etc.). The grass grown for the intensive grazing practice not only added a crop to our rotation but also adds more nutrients back into the soil. It also helps with the fertilization of our farmland. The higher density of cattle paired with short grazing periods allows for even manure distribution and an increase of nitrogen back on the land. The cattle act as a living fertilizing system!
How does this grazing affect the ranch lands?
Higher intensity grazing for a shorter duration allows for a longer rest period for the plant to recover fully which promotes the regrowth and in turn, is beneficial for the environment and for the cattle.
Is there anything negative about this type of grazing method?
Anyone would see this type of grazing method as a different management system. This scares some people away from change because there is so much to learn and implement. Overall, the benefits of this program for the land and the animals outweigh the efforts that would need to be taken to implement the program.
Do you see yourself using this practice after the drought is over and the grasses have grown back on the ranch?
Many ranches in the cattle belt use this type of grazing to increase their herd size which in turn positively affects their bottom line. This type of grazing is definitely something we will continue to work with and add to our long-term plan for our native range grazing and our crop grazing.
Intensive grazing saved our cattle herd and our ranch’s bottom line! This way of grazing and feeding our cattle has allowed us to keep ranching through the drought and continue our efforts to care for and protect our animals and the land we raise them on. This is a job that my family and I love very much, and we consider ourselves extremely fortunate to be able to raise cattle and care for the land.