Beef cattle work in harmony with the grasslands

The importance of biodiversity is widely recognized. High profile reports include the UN IPBES 2019 report (United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and the OECD report entitled Biodiversity: Finance and the Economic and Business Case for Action (OECD, 2019). A coalition of 19 agriculture-centric companies called One Planet Business for Biodiversity has formed, aimed at scaling up regenerative agriculture to protect soil health, boosting cultivated biodiversity, and restoring and protecting high-value natural ecosystems, among other things. In a related initiative, General Mills has initiated a new focus on soil health in Canada and the US. Agriculture is both a major force for biodiversity protection and an impediment to protecting biodiversity. Public agencies and global supply chains are recognizing the risks to their future if biodiversity is not protected.

Canada’s grasslands are a vital and endangered resource. This ecosystem is home to significant biodiversity, and is often used as grazing land for beef production. The tricky balancing act is our ability to protect ecosystem biodiversity and optimize beef production. Carlyle (2019) identified the pros and cons of beef production together with  the production of ecosystem goods and services Clearly, beef cattle can be a positive influence on biodiversity protection in grasslands, and well-managed cattle grazing can contribute to grasslands’ sustainability.

The question of whether we are doing the best we can remains open. Genomics can help achieve the optimal balance between animals (bovine and wild) and plants on native and tame pastures. By understanding animal genetics linked to their grazing behaviour and the genetics of plant material in the pastures, science can identify the best animals for particular properties, which could be public or private lands.

The time is opportune, with many applications of new forms of precision agriculture (drones, wearable sensors) and the availability of analytical methods using big data and artificial intelligence or machine learning. This provides the opportunity to enhance beef production and the production of ecosystem goods and services. Investor pressures provide the economic need for more research and for adoption of precision management of our sensitive grasslands. Understanding how to manage cattle and grasslands optimally is an opportunity to get in front of consumer pressure to have a verified ‘sustainable’ beef product as part of their food choices.

Sustainability starts in the microbiome Part 2: Cows and food-waste streams

Cattle don’t just eat grasses.  They can also digest 99% of fruit and vegetables—even bread. Producers have been feeding cull potatoes and peels to cows for years, so the idea of feeding food waste to beef cows is nothing new.

“Ideally, humans should consume the food,” says Tim McAllister, Principal Research Scientist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, Alberta, “but for now, food waste represents a continuous stream of potential feed.”

Spoilage isn’t an issue if food waste is preserved as silage. If properly ensiled, the quality of the food could be conserved for years. The real issue is the excessive packaging that gets discarded along with the waste. McAllister envisions a system in which food waste from grocery stores or restaurants is separated from packaging and delivered to farms. Sounds simple? Not so fast…. Some regulatory and transportation issues have to be fixed, first.

Let’s take a box of blueberries as an example. They’re shipped from Nova Scotia to wherever they are going in plastic. If they don’t get sold at the retailer, they go to a landfill or composting facility. At that point, they are designated as hazardous waste, making it illegal to remove them from the disposal site. To complicate things even more, you can’t legally feed anything to cows that isn’t listed in the Feeds Act without a special certificate. You guessed it…Blueberries aren’t in the Act.

“Sadly, that’s a true story about the blueberries,” says McAllister. “I found them when I was visiting a commercial composting facility. Perfect condition. Couldn’t take them home.”

The issue here is consumer expectations. If grocery stores didn’t restock their shelves, those shelves would be bare within 2-3 days. That’s how fast the turnover is. Any remaining produce will look less appealing by then, especially if it has to compete with newly-stocked produce. What do consumers pick? The new produce. Two misconceptions are happening. Visually, we don’t like “wilted lettuce,” even though it’s perfectly safe to eat and poses no health risk. And we think poorly of stores that keep it on the shelves so they remove it to protect their image.

Then there are liability issues. Once the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has approved a feedstuff, the federal government could be liable if people or animals get sick from it. For example, the CFIA ensures that some waste products from the processing of cattle do not enter the feed or food chain. Ensuring the integrity of this system is important for food safety and for complying with export regulations.

“So you can see why the system evolved to how it is now, and why it is not easy to change,” says McAllister. “But we have to start somewhere to reduce and derive more value from these food waste streams. There’s not much point beating up on beef production over methane emissions while so much food ends up in the garbage. We need to use the leakage as feed if we’re going to take full advantage of the role beef cattle can play in a circular economy.”

NOTE FROM GENTEC CEO, GRAHAM PLASTOW: “The Brits are a bit ahead of Canada on this issue. One of the companies I worked with, SugaRich, has been taking wrongly-packaged food, like chocolate bars, etc., and turning it into ingredients for animal feed for many years. SugaRich is adamant that Food for Animal Feed should not be classified as waste.”