cowherd sustainability

Sustainability is worth how much?

Researchers crunched the numbers and came up with a dollar amount on your sustainability efforts. While not exact numbers, quantification like this provides the cattle business the necessary ammunition to defend and advocate the use of cattle to maintain and improve the environment, while transforming feedstuffs inedible by humans into high-quality protein humans can consume.

Few would argue there must be economic value in sustainability, but identifying and quantifying the value is only slightly easier than hobbling a Kansas twister.

Even within the narrow focus of cattle and beef, the definition of sustainability is varied. Most widely accepted definitions get at responsibility for the cattle, the environment and the people involved and affected, as well as the necessity of positive economics.

For instance, the Beef Checkoff-funded Sustainability Executive Summary puts it this way: “Producing safe, nutritious beef while balancing environmental stewardship, social responsibility and economic viability.”

Next comes the unenviable task of identifying and quantifying the components that offer gains and losses to all involved, economic and otherwise. However, efforts by some, like the Beef Board and the United States Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB), are beginning to provide a glimpse of the stunning economic value cattle offer the public.

Consider just one study that looks only at what are known as ecosystem services. Think here of things like wildlife habitat maintained and improved because of cattle grazing, as well as public recreational benefits.

At the recent checkoff-funded Beef Sustainability Ag Media Workshop (AMW), David “Tex” Taylor, Extension specialist and professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wyoming (UW), described the complexities of quantifying value.

He and Nicolas Quintana Ashwell, a UW postdoctoral scholar/fellow —along with fellow researchers Kristie Maczko and John Tanaka — recently completed the first phase of a study assessing the economic value of U.S. beef cattle ranching-based ecosystems services. The study is also funded by the checkoff.

“You can’t go to the store and pick up a six-pack of biodiversity,” Taylor explained. “Measuring the economic value of ecosystem services is difficult, because many of the services are not traded in the formal market. Often there is no observed price, so you have to rely on non-market valuation methods.”

For instance, the UW study accounts for forage production (pasture rental rate estimates from the National Agricultural Statistics Service), general ecosystems services (annual grassland rental payments from the Farm Service Agency Conservation Reserve Program) and wildlife recreation values (estimates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Try this on for size: $57.67 per acre, $726 economic value per cow, the equivalent of $43 per 5-weight calf (basis 86 cents per pound of retail beef). Those are the preliminary numbers.

Moreover, the revenue is based only on operations relying on beef cattle as their primary source of income. That’s 620,000 operations, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Those operations accounted for 20.4 million beef cows and 337 million acres of agricultural land, 1 in every 5 acres of nonmetro, nonurban land.

No. The numbers aren’t exact. You can’t send an invoice for $57.67 per acre or $726 per cow to the government or public and expect payment.

But, quantification like this provides the cattle business the necessary ammunition to defend and advocate the use of cattle to maintain and improve the environment, while transforming feedstuffs inedible by humans into high-quality protein humans can consume.

“The sustainability ship has sailed. We’re beyond wondering if this is a fad or a trend,” explained Kim Stackhouse-Lawson at the AMW. She is USRSB chair and director of sustainability for JBS USA. “Sustainability will be a top-five demand driver in the next 20 years,” she says.

By the way, you likely noticed the number of mentions about “checkoff-funded” in this column. Before you entertain any nay-saying rhetoric about the nation’s Beef Checkoff, please go to beefresearch.org — just one of many industry assets made possible with checkoff dollars — and figure out how else any of this gets done.

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