Sustainability Metrics

New Specifics Help Define Sustainable U.S. Beef

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
As U.S. beef producers work to define niches and production trends, the USRSB has clarified what is considered a sustainably-managed operation by sector. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Victoria G. Myers)

Continuous improvement is the focus of a newly released U.S. Beef Industry Sustainability Framework. It calls on all sectors of the beef industry to work toward a set of established metrics.

Kansas rancher Debbie Lyons-Blythe, believes the new framework will serve to highlight what America's ranchers already do every day.

"We all constantly work to improve efficiency and conservation and animal welfare," Blythe told DTN. "This new framework highlights that, which is really great. I especially like that it gives us the ability to measure sustainability at every level in the value chain, not just the ranch."

USRSB's assessment tools were established for these sectors: cow/calf, livestock auction markets, feed yards, packing and processing plants, and retail and food service.

Blythe, chair of the group's Outreach Working Group, says inclusion of everyone in the value chain "adds a lot of power to the conversation when we are all trying to work together."

She says an example of that collaboration across sectors is the indicator for water resources.

"At the cow/calf level, for example, we talk about a grazing management plan, with a focus on water quality and quantity," she explains. "Feed yards, auction markets, slaughter plants and processors have their own assessment tools to help them with water management goals. At the retail level each outlet can assess its impact on local water quality and see ways to improve."

USRSB, made up of over 100 stakeholders in sectors including food and retail companies, cattle producers, veterinarians, scientists, financial services and non-governmental agencies, defines "sustainability" as being "socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable". This means sustainable beef comes from profitable operations and businesses "committed to optimizing resources and caring for animals, employees and communities."

There are six, high-priority indicators under the USRSB framework. These include: animal health and well-being, efficiency and yield, water resources, land resources, air and greenhouse gas emissions, and employee safety and well-being. Metrics to measure progress in each of these areas were developed by the sector they apply to. Sustainability Assessment Guides (SAGs) are available for each sector. Progress is the goal of these voluntary assessments.

USRSB members represent 30% of the U.S. cattle herd, with more than 20 billion pounds of beef processed and 100 million consumers. The non-profit organization is itself a member of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. The USRSB supports a number of external projects and field trials, and works with respected research partners, including Extension and cattle groups across the country like Noble Research Institute. The group set a goal to increase the amount of U.S. beef produced using the USRSB framework by 20% by next year. The USRSB recently partnered with Field to Market, a group working with crop commodity organizations to continuously improve those industries' sustainability footprints

For the cow/calf sector, metrics measuring sustainability largely focus on grazing programs, adoption of Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) principles and use of genetics and nutrition.

Asked why she feels it's important Blythe Family Farms be involved in the group, the rancher stresses if producers want things to progress in ways that can benefit them they have to be involved in making things happen.

"The conversation around sustainability has been happening a long time, and it wasn't going in a positive direction for ranchers," said Blythe. "That has totally changed. The USRSB put cattle producers front and center, and we are directly involved in the organization, the framework that was developed and in determining what is involved."

The USRSB's sustainability self-assessment tool can be found online at Blythe explains there is a list of questions on the site that can help a producer evaluate the sustainability of his or her own, unique operation.

Blythe adds it's important to understand that USRSB's goal is one of continuous improvement, not to serve as a Business-to-Business (B2B) group with a purpose of directly connecting buyers and sellers of beef. There are tools to assist marketers and buyers, who are part of an alliance or a certification program, in identifying sustainability metrics.

"USRSB can compare its framework and information with your program and help determine if your metrics meet the requirements for a sustainability program in beef," she explains. "Essentially USRSB is doing a lot of the work for anyone interested in defining sustainability and having a framework. But we are not going to be a B2B entity."

She says the reason for this distinction is pretty simple.

"Sustainability has to be a precompetitive conversation. We all are sustainable, and we are getting better. That's what this is about. USRSB is for the industry as a whole. It's not to say that one ranch is more sustainable than another one. This is continuous improvement for all."


Victoria Myers