Mandan News

The other side of beef production

Letter to the Editor
By Julie Ellingson
Executive Vice President North Dakota Stockmen’s Association

As a lifelong Morton County cattle rancher and the executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, I was disappointed to read the “EarthTalk” column dissing on beef and beef production in a recent issue of the Mandan News, the official newspaper of Morton County, which, incidentally, is home to about 90,000 head of cattle; leading the state in beef production.

In the article, authors Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss offer up suggestions for “tasty vegetarian options for meat.” While “Meatless Select Fishless Vegan Tuna” does anything but make my mouth water, I recognize that some folks may have a different palate than those of us who enjoy nutrient-rich, savory and satisfying beef. That’s fine. It’s America; people are entitled to their opinions and can eat what they want. But they shouldn’t make their food choices based on mistruths and faulty assumptions, like those that Scheer and Moss use as the basis of their column.

In the article, the duo alleges that livestock receive “brutal treatment.” Are you kidding? Do you know that cattlemen and cattlewomen go to great lengths to ensure that their animals are adequately fed and watered – often before they sit down for their own breakfast – and receive necessary medical attention? On our cattle ranch, someone is up nearly round the clock during the heart of calving season to be ready to help any laboring mother who might need assistance and whose calf might need a little extra attention. That might mean supplementing the newborn with a bottle of milk or bringing it into the house to get warm and dry. Cattle ranchers take great pride in being animal stewards, and that can mean working through the coldest blizzards and the most intense storms, bringing the herd in closer, bedding corrals, setting up windbreak, thawing out water fountains and doing whatever it takes to safeguard the animals and make them more comfortable. Cattle producers provide this kind of care, not only because it is the right thing to do, but it’s also how we make our living. That’s because cattle that are healthy are also the kind that make us money, and that have kept my family in the cattle business for four generations.

I’m disappointed in the false and misleading statements that Scheer and Moss make about livestock’s role in the environment, too. They assert that it takes 150 square meters of land to produce a kilogram of beef. That is simply wrong. Two-and-a-half times wrong, in fact. Scientific studies by Capper (2011) and Elferink and Nonhebel (2007) show that the figure is more like 61 or even 43 square meters. The authors also fail to note that the majority of land used to raise beef is not suitable for growing human food crops due to terrain, climate or fertility. In the United States, only eight percent of pastureland is fertile enough to be classified as cropland pasture by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thus, the supposition that we can grow other crops on rangeland is incorrect.

Additionally, corn only accounts for seven percent of the total feed used to produce a kilogram of beef. The rest is forage, pasture, by-product feeds, etc. In fact, the beef industry recycles a huge amount of by-products from the human food and fiber industries and feeds them to cattle to yield safe, affordable, high-quality meat.

Scheer’s and Moss’ water figure citation is also crazily high. According to Beckett and Oltjen (1994), the actual figure is not 15,000, but, rather, 3,680 liters per kilogram. It is also worth noting that the water that is used for livestock production is also “recycled,” not pulled out of urban reservoirs. The only way the column authors could have arrived at such an absurdly high figure is by assuming a low-productivity beef system, that every animal is fed concentrates every single day and that every drop of rain that falls is being “used” by beef! That is certainly not the case, and why we certainly cannot rely upon the authors’ figures.

The authors likewise overestimate the beef industry’s carbon emissions by 63 percent. According to Capper (2011), the actual figure is about 16.5 kilograms per kilogram, which is closer to driving 39 miles than the 100-mile figure the column authors claim. They also fail to note that every food – yes, even the gardenburgers they list as a “tasty alternative” – has a certain amount of greenhouse gas associated with it.

Moreover, the nutritional value of a vegetable-based protein is not the same as meat, so you’d have to grow far more vegetable proteins to supply the same amount of amino acids that you get with beef. What I am saying is that you cannot compare apples to oranges, or, in this case, broccoli to beef. Plus, don’t we all enjoy a little variety in our diets? I don’t know about you, but I can only eat so many brussels sprouts!

So, there you have it. If you want to choose Meatless Select Fishless Vegan Tuna, go for it. You’re absolutely entitled to. But do it because you like it, not because someone sold you on a litany of false information aimed to disparage beef and the people who go to work hard every day to put the great tasting, nutritiously solid, socially and environmentally sound product on the table for consumers around the world.

Julie Ellingson
Executive Vice President
North Dakota Stockmen’s Association