Here’s what the beef industry says about its water use

The amount of water needed to produce a pound of beef looks high — until you hear the whole story

Editor’s note: This article from the Beef Cattle Research Council makes the case that beef production has a much lighter ‘water footprint’ than critics charge and provides a number of environmental benefits. It has been condensed and lightly edited. The full article is at www.beefresearch.ca.

Yes, it takes water to produce beef, but in the 2.5 million years since our ancestors started eating meat, we haven’t lost a drop yet.

It is estimated that the pasture-to-plate journey of this important protein source requires about 1,910 U.S. gallons per pound (or 15,944 litres per kilogram) of water to get Canadian beef to the dinner table. That’s what is known as the ‘water footprint’ of beef production.

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Cattle grazing in a field

But the fact is it doesn’t matter what crop or animal is being produced; food production takes water. And water that is used to produce a feed crop or cattle is not lost, but is recycled to be used again.

Water requirements vary with animal size and temperature. But on average, a 1,250-pound (567-kg) beef steer only drinks about 10 gallons (about 38 litres) of water per day to support its normal metabolic function. The average person in Canada uses about 59 gallons (223 litres) per day for consumption and hygiene.

Agriculture in general and beef producers specifically have often been targeted as being high consumers, even ‘wasters’ of water. However, there’s a lot more to this story.

Water measured in the total water footprint is often broken into three colour categories: How much surface and ground (blue) water is used to water cattle, make fertilizer, irrigate pastures and crops, process beef, etc.; how much rain (green) water falls on pasture and feed crops; and how much water is needed to dilute run-off from feed crops, pastures and cattle operations (grey water).

More than 95 per cent of the water used in beef production is green water — it is going to rain and snow whether cattle are on pasture or not. And it is important to remember of all water used one way or another it all gets recycled.

The larger picture

Since the objective is to produce protein, couldn’t we just grow more pulse crops and still meet protein requirements, use less water, and benefit the environment? Let’s take a look at why that theory doesn’t hold true.

First of all, whether it is an annual crop or perennial forage, all crops need moisture to grow. Annual pulse crops use more water than grass. For dry pea production, for example, it takes about 414,562 gallons of water per acre of land to grow peas compared to about 78,813 gallons per acre of land used for beef production.

This means that not every acre beef cattle are raised on is suited to crop production. Much of the land used to raise forage for beef cattle doesn’t receive adequate moisture or have the right soil conditions to support crop production, but it can produce types of grass that thrive in drier conditions.

Beef cattle are not the first bovid species to set foot on what we now consider Canadian agricultural land. For thousands and thousands of years herds of as many as 30 million bison roamed across North America, including Canada, eating forages and depositing nutrients (manure) back into the soil and living in ecological harmony with thousands of plant and animal species.

Today, the five million head of beef cattle being raised on Canadian farms can’t duplicate that natural system but managed properly, provide a valuable contribution to the environment just as the bison did. They help to preserve Canada’s shrinking natural grassland ecosystems by providing plant and habitat biodiversity for migratory birds and endangered species, as well as habitat for a host of upland animal species. Properly managed grazing systems also benefit wetland preservation, while the diversity of plants all help to capture and store carbon from the air in the soil.

Where do cattle fit?

Forages (pastures and harvested roughage) account for approximately 80 per cent of the feed used by beef cattle in Canada. Nearly a third (31 per cent) of Canada’s agricultural land is pasture, not suited for annual crop production.

Canada’s beef herd is primarily located in the Prairies. The southern Prairies are drought prone, and the more northerly growing seasons are too short for many crops. Central and Eastern Canada generally have higher rainfall and longer growing seasons, but much of this land is too boggy, stony, or bushy to allow cultivation.

Grass and other range and pasture plants contain fibre that people can’t digest. Beef cattle production allows us to produce nutritious protein on land that isn’t environmentally or climatically suited to cultivation and crop production.

Environmental benefits

Simply focusing on water use per pound of product ignores the water cycle. The water cycle is important — humans, wheat, corn, lentils, poultry, pork, eggs, milk, forages and beef production all use water, but they don’t use it up. Nearly all the water that people or cattle consume ends up back in the environment through manure, sweat, or water vapour. As well, new technologies to recycle and reuse water can reduce the amount of water needed for beef processing by 90 per cent.

Plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, incorporate the carbon into their roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds, and release oxygen back into the atmosphere. Because perennial plants (most hay and pasture land) live for many years, they develop an extensive root system which will eventually decay and become part of the soil carbon. Because these permanent or perennial pastures are not cultivated and reseeded every year, the carbon sequestered by these plants remains in the soil rather than being released back into the atmosphere. Numerous studies show grasslands store more carbon than adjacent annual cropland. Permanent grassland and perennial pastures drastically reduce the risk of soil loss due to wind and water erosion.

As a general rule, when lands are left undisturbed, only 10 per cent of precipitation runs off the land, 40 per cent evaporates, and 50 per cent goes down into the soil. When soils are disturbed, water infiltration is reduced.

Grasslands also provide habitat for small and large mammals, hawks, nesting birds, songbirds and pollinating insects. Converting natural grassland to crop production results in considerable biodiversity loss.

Most of Canada’s native grasslands have already been converted to crop production. This has led to considerable population losses in some species, with up to 87 per cent population declines among some grassland bird species.

It is not an all-or-nothing scenario — crops, cattle, and grasslands need each other. For example, canola crops yield and ripen better when they are pollinated by bees. All the canola plants flower at the same time, and each plant only flowers for two or three weeks. Grasslands provide a home for a wide range of plants that all flower at different times. That means bees have lots of plants to help support them during long periods when annual crops aren’t flowering. Over 140 bee species are resident in Canadian grasslands; bee abundance and diversity are positively related to the presence of grasslands.

Annual crops can also serve double duty. Barley that doesn’t meet specifications for brewing standards can still be used as good-quality livestock feed. Similarly, wheat that doesn’t meet milling, export or other industrial end-use standards, can be used as cattle feed.

To repeat, yes it takes water to produce beef, but on a broader scale, beef cattle are a vital part of an integrated system.

Cattle need grass; grass needs grazing to remain vital; grass protects the soil; healthy soil helps to conserve moisture; plants provide feed and habitat for a myriad of species; grains not suitable for the human-food market make excellent livestock feed; cattle manure provides a valuable natural fertilizer to pastures and crops; and the whole system results in production of a high-quality, healthy protein source for humans.

All food systems rely on water, but the most important thing to remember is the water is not used up. All water ultimately gets recycled.

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