Looking to the future of the beef industry, presenters at the Colorado Farm Show on Tuesday in Greeley discussed two major questions: How can those in the industry improve the sustainability of their operations, and how can young people take their own place in beef production?
Speakers talked with attendees during Beef Day panels at the 50th farm show, which kicked off Tuesday at Island Grove Regional Park and is scheduled to run through Thursday.
Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of sustainability research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Denver, said an in-depth, extensive assessment of the beef industry’s sustainability — its ability to operate without depleting resources — examined efficiency at every part of the production process, even down to the amount of toilet paper used each day in one packing plant. She said the results of the study show that those involved in beef production have made improvements in reducing their environmental footprint in the last six years.
“We have a positive story to tell,” she said.
Stackhouse-Lawson, who earned a doctorate in animal science at University of California-Davis, said innovations in areas like crop yields, machinery, irrigation, manure management and animal performance have helped ranchers save water and fuel. In other parts of the industry, efforts like right-size packaging — a sweeping reduction in the amount of plastic used to package beef — have made a big difference, she said.
Sustainability has become a catch-all term for social, environmental and financial responsibility, she said, and consumers are concerned with animal treatment and traceability for food safety. Stackhouse-Lawson said members of the industry have made marked strides in those areas.
She said the biggest issue facing the sustainability of the industry is food waste, a problem that needs to be addressed at all levels but especially the consumer’s.
Stackhouse-Lawson said the concern over sustainability in the beef industry started with a United Nations report that indicated the industry was responsible for producing more greenhouse gases than was the transportation sector. That’s far from true in the United States, she said, but that same UN report presented information that is very pertinent to the beef industry:
“They were really the first to articulate how much food we’re going to need to feed 9 billion people in 2050,” she said.
Stackhouse-Lawson said growing efficiency in beef production will ensure that the industry will play a prominent role in ramping up food production to sustain the ever-increasing population
“We have sixth-generation farmers,” she said. “We want there to be a seventh and an eighth and a ninth and a tenth.”
Discussing how to keep those generations going, a panel of four newcomers to the beef industry told attendees about their startups and their strategies for succeeding. Panelists had participated in Colorado State University’s Colorado Ranching Legacy Program, a series of classes in which attendees learn the ins and outs of ranching through hands-on participation and expert lecturers.
The group of new ranchers said one of the most important aspects of succeeding in the beef business is keeping an eye out for opportunity.
“It helps you to stay on top of the game and see what your feeders are looking for, see what the next step in the cattle industry’s going to be,” said Kari Schultz, who grew up on a ranch in Kirk and who is now venturing out with her husband, Caleb, to build their own herd.
Leah Churches said she grew up on a ranch in Nebraska where she bought her first heifer from her father at the age of 8. Now she runs a small herd in southern Wyoming with her husband and two children. Like others on the panel, she said she recommends that newcomers to the industry take advantage of leasing land while they grow their herds.
“There are not a lot of younger people in agriculture, but that is also an opportunity for those of us that want to be involved,” she said.
Jack Whittier, a CSU professor and extension specialist, said there are loan opportunities for those trying to get started in agriculture.
Panelists also said their families are integral in keeping their small operations running. Kyle Kocerha, who is getting more and more involved in his father-in-law’s operation, said he, his wife, his daughter and the rest of the family work in all aspects of the beef business, from rounding up cattle to calving.
“It’s a family operation,” he said. “We’re all involved with it.”
Devin Murnin, director of industry programs for the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, said those interested in partaking in the Ranching Legacy Program may contact him or Whittier. He said as part of the program, he was pleased to see the gusto with which the panelists were working to grow their operations.
“With the passion they have for the beef industry, cattle production in Colorado is still bright,” he said. ❖