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Trojan explains the sustainability of beef productions from past decades

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Buffalo – “There have been two topics emerging in the industry over the last five to 10 years, and those are sustainability and advocacy,” said Sarah Trojan, beef cattle and ruminant nutrition specialist with Texas Tech University.

“Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and they want to know that it was produced in a manner that aligns with their moral values,” described Trojan. “This is just another thing that is driving corporate America to come up with sustainable brands to be able to market their products more readily to these consumers.”

Defining sustainability

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is one of the organizations working diligently to create a unified definition of sustainability, as well as to develop measures on how to conduct an assessment on an operation’s sustainability.

They are also looking at which practices decrease or increase sustainability. 

Beef checkoff dollars were invested into research to find scientific evidence and data to share with consumers about beef production. 

They released their findings of the study at the beginning of 2014.

Another research project conducted by Washington State University (WSU) conducted a summary of beef production practices and how they have evolved and become more sustainable from 1977 to 2007. 

“Both of these studies looked at every component of beef production,” said Trojan. “They looked at everything from how feed is produced to the product that is consumed.”

NCBA study

The three prongs of the NCBA study were environmental, social and economic impacts of beef production. 

The environmental portion of the study consisted of surveys of consumer perceptions of the beef industry entities and of various other entities. The inputs analyzed were air emissions, water and energy uses and land and management.

Fertilizer production and application, toxicity potential from herbicide and pesticide application and occupational illness and injury were also looked at for the study. 

“Of these factors occupational illness and injury has seen the most improvement since 1977 to today,” said Trojan.

Environmental impact

“The environmental impact of beef production has improved by 12 percent since 1977 to 2011,” explained Trojan. “We are making progress in the industry, and this is a statistic that we can give to people.”

The environmental portion of the study also analyzed three different time points in the industry to incorporate major changes the industry had seen. The time points were the 1970s, 2005 and 2011. 

The reasoning for choosing those time periods was for the shift from wholesale beef cuts to boxed beef in the 1970s, the incorporation of distiller’s grains to cattle diets in 2005 and the current feeding practices for 2011. 

Social and economic

Trojan mentioned that social dynamics were difficult to measure and focus more on animal health and welfare. 

Other factors looked at were consumer education, food availability and affordability.

The economic component of the NCBA study is the third component deals with market fairness, traceability, product quality and trade. 

This portion has not been developed yet, and the goal of it is to develop a computer program for producers to use on their operations to enter their inputs and outputs of production to calculate a sustainability value for an operation.

University research

The results of the WSU study for the change in sustainability of beef production from 1977 to 2007 showed the industry is producing 31 percent more beef per animal today than in 1977 with 70 percent fewer animals. 

As well as utilizing 81 percent less feed and 86 percent less water, land resource use was also down to 66 percent. 

“These dramatic changes were achieved through the changing of the genetic dynamics of our cattle and the way our production practices have advanced in those 30 years towards of doing more with less,” stated Trojan. 

The environmental impact of beef production over those 30 years saw a reduction in manure production, nitrogen excretion, methane production, nitrous oxide and carbon footprint since 1977. 



Growth-promoting technology was not included in the WSU study, but those improvements seen were achieved through genetics and the increased growth rate of cattle, advanced feed processing technology, improved methods to formulate our diets and a more efficient way to feed cattle.

“We have done all of those improvements in a narrow 30 year gap,” commented Trojan. “These are good sequences of events, in terms of animal management and practices over the last 30 years, that look good and reflect well on beef production.”

Trojan spoke at the 2014 Women’s Agriculture Summit sponsored by the Johnson County CattleWomen’s in Buffalo that took place in late January. Madeline Robinson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

Further advancements

The beef industry is making advancements in reducing environmental impacts, with an additional seven percent decrease in impact from 2005-11.

“While we made a pretty good stride from 1977 to 2011, we are still making progress in reducing the environmental impact in beef production,” stated Sarah Trojan, beef cattle and ruminant nutrition specialist with Texas Tech University. “We will use this information to help leverage our product to corporate America.”

From 2005-11, the industry also had a five percent improvement in the eco-efficiency. Eco-efficiency takes into account the cost, as well as the environmental impact, of beef production in those six years. 

“This is good information to share with consumers and a good story to tell about how beef production really works and what the driving forces are,” said Trojan. “We are making progress based on these types of modeling systems and are able to developed and gauge what sustainability really means.”

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