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Corn and cattle industries aid in search for sustainability

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Beef producers and corn growers are growing closer together, says National Beef Cattlemen’s Association (NCBA) Cattlemen to Cattlemen Host Kevin Ochsner. The Nov. 3 episode of Cattlemen to Cattlemen focused on the complementary relationship between the corn and beef industries, as well as common challenges and opportunities for producers of both products. 

                  Kevin Ross, president of the National Corn Grower’s Association (NCGA) and Iowa corn farmer, says the cattle feeding industry accounts for the consumption of 1.9 billion bushels of corn annually. Mike Drinnin, owner of Drinnin Feedlots, adds corn makes up a huge part of the rations ,and although the business raises some corn, they buy approximately 80 percent of the corn they feed. 

Complementary industries

                  The corn and beef industries are no doubt, two very complementary industries, shares Ochsner, especially in the fight to produce more with less. 

                  “The first thing that comes to mind is the taste, tenderness and juiciness of beef when fed corn-based diets,” says Dr. Galen Erickson, a ruminant nutritionist with the University of Nebraska. “Secondly, we feed corn and corn by-products as an energy source to cattle. The more energy going in, the faster the rate of gain is and the more efficient cattle are.” 

                  He notes this efficiency bodes well for the U.S. beef system because it has helped advance the industry to be the most efficient beef production system in the world. 

                  “I would also like to point out cattle producers use a lot of parts of the corn plant in different ways,” Erickson adds. “We can also put up silage or use the residue to graze. We certainly try to capitalize on the feed-stock being produced.” 

                  Kylee Geffert of Geffert Farms adds corn producers make a lot of production and harvest decisions with the beef industry in mind.

                  “One of the things unique to corn producers is the way we make decisions about when to harvest and how to process corn,” says Erickson. “In an integrated system, either on a producer’s operation or with their neighbors, the decision to harvest dry corn, high-moisture corn or even silage is present, even at the time of planting.” 

                  “One of the beauties about corn in general is it is such a versatile crop. When it comes to feeding animals in general, especially beef cattle, corn is used in so many ways,” shares Ross. 

Generational operations need efficiency

                  In many parts of the agriculture industry, sustainability has been a focus for many years. 

                  “Sustainability is something producers look at every day of operation,” notes Drinnin. “We’re producing the same amount of beef with 33 percent less cattle compared to the 1970s.” 

                  In the corn industry, Ross notes producers have been working on ways to improve crop performance and sustainability across the board. 

                  “For a number of us, sustainability means keeping profitability of our operation and making sure it’s there for the next generation,” he explains. “Most feedlots and farms are generational and to us, sustainability means the operation will be around for a number of years down the road.” 

                  Erickson shares there is a host of specific management practices producers have adopted. Each makes sense from an improved efficiency standpoint and allows producers to raise more beef on less resources. 

                  “Anything corn producers do to improve their sustainability helps tremendously in the beef industry,” he says. “For example, 98 percent of the water footprint in beef production is related to feed production. Any improvements made for water efficiency in corn production has a trickle down effect to improve the sustainability of beef.” 

Sustainable production

                  “I think there are a lot of management practices going to be adopted, if they haven’t been already, to ultimately improve the sustainability picture for both industries,” Erickson states. 

                  Ross shares many corn producers are working to reduce tillageor practice no-till farming. 

                  “We are learning more about soil every day, and soil health in general is something we focus on a lot,” he says. “We continue to look at ways to improve our footprint every day, and we are seeing higher efficiencies with water use to production efficiencies in corn production.” 

                  On his feedlot, Drinnin shares they spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to utilize resources in rations to make the most efficient use of them. He adds efficiency and sustainability is his goal every day. 

                  “In processing feeds, making feed choices and utilizing local byproducts, beef producers are recycling products we don’t use for human edible food and making them into human edible food, beef,” explains Erickson. “Additionally, producers are interested or are using feed additives to decrease the methane footprint of beef production.” 

                  “Beef producers have done a good job of implementing sustainable strategies to date and have improved the footprint of the industry dramatically in the last 50 years,” he adds. 

Producer and consumer education 

                  All of the panelists agree the sustainability story for both the corn and beef industries are holding strong and continuously looking to improve. NCBA and the NCGA have both worked with the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and produced educational resources to help create conversations. 

                  The beef industry has taken a little more heat on the sustainability issue than has been warranted over time, in Erickson’s opinion. Beef producers have good news to share, he says. He believes every cattle producer should address this issue and not be afraid of it. 

                  “First and foremost, the U.S. produces 18 percent of the world’s beef with eight percent of the world’s cattle,” he explains. “Second, by using grain and high-energy diets including corn, beef producers dramatically increase growth rate, feed utilization and size of cattle at market. Looking at sustainability from the standpoint of the amount of beef producers per cow exposed, the U.S. is the best in the world.” 

                   Erickson adds there are exciting developments in the area of methane reduction.

                  “We are learning from atmospheric scientists the methane story is different than what has previously been told,” he shares. “It doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere, and frankly, it’s been produced forever by ruminants. Anything we do to increase feed utilization, like feeding corn, or anything that reduces naturally expelled methane, will have dramatic impacts on what is concentrated in the atmosphere.” 

                  Geffert concludes agricultural producers have to continuously learn and work to educate consumers on the efforts of their operation to increase sustainable production and bridge the gap between agricultural production and consumers. 

                  Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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