A new study adds to a growing body of evidence that beef’s environmental footprint is lessening as time passes.
Results released Dec. 14 by researchers at University of Manitoba and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) show it now takes less water to raise a kilogram of beef.
The study is part of a larger project entitled Defining the Environmental Footprint of Canadian Beef Production which has also shown reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions emitted by cattle as well as land required to raise them. The study looked at a time period between 1891 and 2011.
These newest results reveal a 17 per cent decrease in the amount of water now needed to produce that same one kilogram of beef than 30 years ago.
The improvements come from efficiency gains in feed production, how cattle are raised and from more beef now produced per animal, researchers say.
“Our results show very clearly the water footprint per kilogram of beef produced has been reduced over the years and that the industry is operating at a high level of sustainability from a water use perspective,” said Dr. Tim McAllister, a research scientist at AAFC Lethbridge and one of the study’s principal investigators.
Deemed unprecedented in its detail, the study looked at water used for feed and pasture crop production, water used by cattle for drinking, water used in feeding systems, and water used in processing.
Notably, the amount of water cattle drink accounts for less than one per cent of total water related to beef production.
Feed production, or the water required to grow pasture and crops or produce byproduct feed accounts for 99 per cent.
University of Manitoba researcher and one of the study’s lead investigators Getahun Legesse Gizaw cites several factors driving the progress they found.
“The improvements related to feed production were due primarily to improvements in crop productivity, with feed crops yielding higher with less water use,” he said.
“Additional improvements were due to beef production advances, in areas including increases in carcass weight, reproductive efficiency, and average daily gain. There has also been substantial investment in southern Alberta to improve the efficiency of irrigation infrastructure and lower evaporative water losses in an area where most of Canada’s feedlot cattle are finished.”
The study examined both the use of surface and groundwater, defined in the study as “blue” water and precipitation or “green” water usage.
Notably, while the overall reduction in total water use was found to be 17 per cent, the blue water usage decreased by 20 per cent.
The study factored in potential evapotranspiration from lands used for beef production utilizing data from 679 weather stations across Canada. Regional differences in beef production and water use were also accounted for.
Water use was compared to beef production output, using information on cattle populations and key performance metrics such as average daily gain and carcass weight.
The researchers note there are more opportunities for further improvement, both in feeding efficiencies and in reducing water requirements for feed crop and pasture production.
The research contributes to the efforts of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB), including the CRSB’s National Beef Sustainability Assessment.
“Water is a precious resource and Canadian beef producers are committed to supporting responsible water use across our production systems,” said Bryan Thiessen, manager of Namaka Farms near Strathmore, Alberta and chair of the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC).
The BCRC manages the Beef Cattle Industry Science Cluster which funded this research under the Growing Forward 2 framework.