BY SARA J. TROJAN, YPC Leadership Board
The concept of ‘sustainability’ in the beef industry has been on the forefront of many discussions, research objectives and advertising campaigns within the industry. However, what is the true definition of ‘sustainability’? Webster defines sustainable as “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed.” In taking that concept and applying it to a ranching scenario, it is evident that long-term ranches are a prime example of ‘sustainable production systems.’ Land that has been in long-term production for beef production has demonstrated resiliency and efficiency in natural resource utilization as resources have been protected to ensure the continuation of beef cattle production.
In determining what defines sustainability on a ranching operation, most would agree that the first assessment to be made is in understanding the natural resources available, and then figuring the best approach for upgrading and protection. Approaches will, of course, differ vastly from operation to operation across regions. In evaluating ‘sustainability’ on our ranch, one person asked me if my dad is a “grass guy” or a “cattleman”. That question caught me a bit off-guard, but in reflecting on the question, I responded “quite honestly, he is a balance of the two.” Growing-up I was able to learn the importance of both qualities in running a successful, sustainable ranching operation. My dad has always been concerned about natural resource conservation efforts on our ranch, fencing riparian areas, improving utilization of water resources, and improving meadows for hay production and grazing are a few examples, as well as knowing which cows are the ‘most productive’ within resources available on the ranch.
In defining the most important natural resources on our operation, we are fortunate to have water resources and the ability to produce high-quality grasses and forages. To ensure the renewability of these resources on our operation, we have integrated irrigation systems and have worked at improving our hay meadows, primarily by improving the grass base with a farming schedule for reseeding grass/alfalfa mixtures. Not only do these meadows serve as the primary source of hay production on the ranch, but also provide a significant grazing resource for ~90 days in the fall for weaned calves and in the spring for ~60 days for new pairs. It is evident that these conservation practices have led to more sustainable production on our ranch, because without gaining any more acreage, we are running more cows than ever before.
Aside from natural resource management, cowherd management decisions also fall into optimizing ‘sustainability’ on the ranch. Understanding the appropriate breed type, mature cow size and level of milk production to optimize reproductive efficiency, weaning weight and other traits of economic importance to match resources available are critical to this effort. Furthermore, the decisions that cow/calf producers make have a broader spanning impact than only on the ranch, commercial producers have a responsibility to the industry to produce calves that can grow and perform efficiently in other segments, for industry sustainability.
I believe that having a plan for ‘ranch sustainability’ is more important now and will gain increasing importance in future years as land resources for production become scarcer. Making a conscious effort to devote time and careful planning to a ‘ranch sustainability plan’, may be critical for ensuring production in coming years. It is important that this plan involves both aspects of natural resource protection and enhancing the cowherd to most effectively utilize available resources. In thinking of our ranch and further improvements that I would like to make include a implementing a more efficient irrigation system to better capture and utilize water resources, incorporating more intensive rotational grazing into some aspects of production, continue making progress in genetic selection, and continuing to upgrade production of hay meadows.