Defining sustainable beef production

In recent months, several conferences have discussed and attempted to describe what constitutes sustainable beef production.

A report from the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef in Colorado Springs, Colo., listed five core principles that should be considered when discussing sustainability:

• Natural resources.

• People and community.

• Animal health and welfare.

• Food.

• Efficiency and innovation.

Also indicated was the necessity of the “triple bottom line” in order to achieve sustainability, which means environmental soundness, economic viability and social responsibility. Most managers and educators I encounter are convinced that without any one of these three, sustainability is not possible.

The term sustainability has become much used in recent years and some commercial interests have used it to aid the sales of their agricultural products and equipment. This is unfortunate because true sustainability is more about management than about using certain “things.” To sustain means to endure, or to keep going without giving way. In the realm of agriculture and natural resources, it is usually thought to mean not depleting or damaging the resources associated with the activity, but to support, boost or improve them.

To be sustainable, an operation must ensure that the resources involved, especially the natural resources, are not harmed or diminished. In fact, these resources should be enhanced over time. Therefore, the managers need to be operating in a manner that is working with and supportive of natural processes.

So, ecosystem processes must be functioning effectively and efficiently to be sustainable. This supports good soil health, high water quality and a diversity of plant and animal organisms. Attention must be paid to the water cycle, mineral cycle, dynamics of the plant and animal community and the solar energy flow.

Financial viability is another necessary component of sustainability. The beef operation must generate a profit or it cannot survive from a financial standpoint.

Social responsibility is a less understood concept, but refers mainly to the responsibility of those involved in a ranch or business to the neighbors and local communities. It is a responsibility to not only “do no harm,” but to support and enhance the things important and meaningful to people of the area.

To many in the beef industry, sustainability includes the production of a high quality product that contributes to the health and wellbeing of the consumers. To some, this means grass-fed and not grain-fed. To others it means organic beef or a “natural” product.

An increasing number of beef producers promote the manner in which their resources are used and the way in which their beef is produced as a distinctive character that makes the product especially good. It has become more of a sales feature in marketing their product.

Most of us in agriculture have not actually arrived at full or complete sustainability yet, but the fact that it is a focal point means we’re moving in the correct direction.

Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he writes about and teaches grazing management. He can be contacted at

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