Research investments to improve cattle production have made the industry more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
“We know that our investment in research that have focused on productivity and efficiency at the farm level has contributed to lower emissions,” said Brenna Grant, research lead at Canfax.
Comparing 1981 to 2011, more has been done with less. The industry required 29 percent less breeding stock, 27 percent fewer cattle for slaughter and produced 15 percent less greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, 24 percent less land was required to produce the same amount of beef. For every kilogram of beef produced, 17 percent less water was required.
Cattle eat feed not fit for human consumption, such as dried distillers grain and downgraded grain and forages.
The combination of cattle and grasslands has improved wildlife habitats and stores carbon in the soil, said Carmen Carlyle of the University of Alberta.
“There is no doubt beef production has some environmental impacts, but looking at the role of cattle grazing in these ecosystems, they continue to help supply eco-goods and services,” he said at a recent land use discussion sponsored by the Canadian Agriculture Policy Institute in Calgary.
While grasslands are a valuable resource, the area is shrinking across the northern Great Plains.
Sixty to 83 percent of native grasslands have been lost since the West was colonized. Most was converted to cultivation, and in some parts of Alberta the areas became urban and industrial development.
Some Alberta data suggests about two percent has been lost each year for the last 15 years.
“We have less landscape available for grazing of livestock than we used to. If we are converting these landscapes to other land uses, what are we potentially losing in that process,” he said.
Biodiversity and habitats are gone.
Habitat loss has led to extirpation of black-footed ferrets, the greater prairie chicken and grizzly bears when they moved to other places. Many other species are endangered or threatened because they lost their habitat.
Grasslands also provide pollinator habitat and can help regulate water flow and purify it.
Research at the U of A is looking at the eco-goods and services provided by grasslands as well as best management practices.
The grassland ecosystems evolved with bison and other animals grazing them. The plants are adapted to grazing, so they have a level of resilience to that process.
Research into stocking rates is trying to determine the best level of grazing intensity. About 100 sites in the province have been assessed, and it appears moderate grazing increases plant biomass and carbon storage in the soil, especially in wetter regions such as parklands.
There is a strong perception that grazing negatively affects biodiversity but preliminary research showed cattle production is maintaining these grasslands with more species on the landscape. Cultivated lands tend to be monocultures.
“From a global perspective our grasslands are the most species rich in terms of plants,” he said.
Researchers found about 30 species on the native grasslands, including lichen, plants, mammals, birds and insects such as ants and pollinators.
Mid-level stocking rates saw the highest level of diversity.
Grassland birds are particularly important, and they are showing the highest level of decline. The research found that plants and birds respond to stocking rates, but others did not seem affected.
The next step is to learn the right combination of different types of landscapes to help preserve these species that have different requirements.
“Ranchers and our producers as stewards of these landscapes are helping to conserve and preserve these large tracts of land that are providing eco-goods and services to us,” he said.